Ergonomics and What People Do

Ergonomics is a pretty important field and one of those things that people probably don’t know nearly enough about. I’m lucky enough to have a mother whose job requires a heavy dose of ergonomics expertise, so I’ve been aware of it for longer than most.

Anyway, one of the ongoing debates in the discipline is over what the optimal workstation configuration is for office workers (i.e. people who get paid to sit on their butts all day and stare at a computer). This article starts with something most people probably don’t know:

Sitting for more than 1 hour has been shown to induce biochemical changes in lipase activity (an enzyme involved in fat metabolism) and in glucose metabolism that leads to the deposit of fats in adipose tissue rather than these being metabolized by muscle, and extensive sitting also relates to heart disease risks, so people are advocating standing to work because this use more muscle activity (burns about 20% more calories). These changes happen in both fit people who regularly aerobically work out and also unfit and obese people, so regular exercise doesn’t address this.

And here comes a typical ergonomic follow-up:

But, standing to work has long known to be problematic, it is more tiring, it dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy. The performance of many fine motor skills also is less good when people stand rather than sit.

Ambiguity.

I really like this quote, because it cuts through the prescriptive garbage and examines what people actually DO:

studies have found that the use of sit-stand stations rapidly declines so that after 1 month a majority of people are sitting all the time.

People are lazy, mostly, and for whatever reason, it is in our nature to want to sit. We’re compelled to sit. So don’t worry about fancy-pants workstations, optimize your sitting environment so you don’t hurt yourself.

And the older you are, the more important all this is, for exactly the same reason there weren’t any 60-year-olds in my soccer league last summer. Bodies break down.

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