Business of Well-being

Why Do We Sit for so Long? An Ergonomic Designer Takes the Sitting Disease to Task

As ergonomic thought leaders tailor their products and services to the growing needs of employers seeking answers to employee back pain from sitting all day, they hope to do more than mass market their wares-they want to help people regain a sense of their humanity in the workplace. Why? Sitting, once thought of as a luxury from standing all day, has now become touted as a disease by the medical community and people who hold down sedentary jobs face great danger.

Statistics show that even if you workout every day, you have an increased risk of dying from cardiac and metabolic diseases. According to a 2010 American Cancer Society study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, women who were inactive and sat over six hours a day were 94 percent more likely to die during the time period studied than those who were physically active and sat less than three hours a day.

In the same study, men who were inactive and sat the same amount of time were 48 percent more likely to die than their standing counterparts. The answer that solves the worldwide sitting-for-too-long-while-you-work problem, according to Martin Keen, CEO and founder of Focal Upright, North Kingstown, Rhode Island, is to work from an upright posture.

His company endorses, designs and manufactures products that focus on the upright, open hip posture the body assumes in zero gravity or when freely floating in water; Keen learned about this from World War I military studies. He studied biometrics about the body focusing on the waist down because he wanted to learn about the relationship of the mechanics from the foot, knee and hip when he first began as a shoe designer in his career.

In his pursuit of information, he began to ask the question, "Why do we sit for so long?" Fast forward several years later he went on to create furniture solutions to help employees experience a better sense of well-being and increase their creativity.

According to the company, since their introduction in May 2012, they have been awarded the Ergonomics Expo Attendees' Choice Award and in June 2013 out of a field of more than 700 top office furniture exhibitors the grand prize Product Innovation Award at Chicago's NeoCon for their Locus Seat and Desk. Keen revealed the answer to his search for finding why employees sit for so long-and his solution-with Corporate Wellness Magazine.

Q: Why do we sit for so long?

A: I had studied biomechanics and after learning about the way the body, in particular, the hip, foot and knee mechanics all work, I was intrigued. I was also a shoe designer. After smashing my toes one too many times wearing sandals, I set about designing and developing a product that became the foundation of Keen Footwear. As a runner, too, I paid attention to how my foot hit the pavement and how my shoes affected my stride.

I had never studied any spine posture but discovered World War I military studies on two types of postures-the seated man in a cockpit and the standing person. As I got deeper into my research I discovered a third posture and it's one I fully endorse: We must be upright when we work.

In my research I discovered Frederick Taylor, who was the first work management consultant hired by Bethlehem Steel. He developed a management science during the Industrial Revolution. He was posed the question by Bethlehem Steel management personnel, "How do we control this large group of people?" In 1897 he made a statement to the company that the best way to do that was to have them all sit down so they are physically lower than their boss. We are still living that legacy today as this has turned into the cubicle.

Q: What was the impetus to make change in your work life and the work lives of others?

A: In 1994, my wife, Mary, and I moved back to the Northeast from California and built a red barn behind our house for me to eventually create in. I was working for a lot of different design companies and assigned a cubicle at my first and second job. It's what we learned to do, like in school, where you sit down and pay attention. That is the way society is-adults adopted this mode of learning and never questioned it.

But then when I began to work for myself, I was trying to be as creative as I could be, and I had to work long hours. I just realized that the difference between sitting and standing, well, the output was huge. I really didn't think about creating a furniture company as I was trying to be the best shoe designer that I could be. When you're creating something, you can find yourself in those modes of incredible insight and creativity where you feel like you've almost left your physical being and entered the zone.

I was seeking that, and I found that standing rather than sitting I was able to accomplish that-so I guess I was pushing myself mentally but it turned out to be physically in order to energize my mental state. I was leaning against a high stool that I had modified-it engaged my body and I noticed being in that particular position kept me going that much longer.

I was just trying to squeeze that much more zone out of the day. I exited the shoe industry by selling it to my partner and took my one prototype of the stool and wanted to bring it to the world. Looking back, I suppose I was looking to solve problems. I often asked myself, Why are we trained to sit for work? Is there another posture we can assume and still feel rested and safe enough physically?

Q: What do you rely upon to make these initiatives happen-research or gut instinct?

A: Initially gut instinct. It just came born out of need. It was meant to be. I realized how much more energy I had using this product and I wanted to share it. So when I had an opportunity to start a second company in the industry with no experience, I just did it. Recently, we completed a study with Ohio State University and will be publishing the results shortly.

We looked into standing, sitting and the leaning postures. The physical benefit of standing was represented quantitatively. Your body is designed to support your computer, which is your brain. If you are shutting down the maintenance system, then the brain follows in a fog. I was fidgeter-to me it is common sense now to stand and work.

Q: What are your industry predictions for the future?

A: I believe that we can do work wherever we are and I want to help people be outstanding in their field. From some of the things we are working on now, a leaning device can be used for customers when they are on the road. Our customers have told us that when they check into a hotel they will work in their rooms but they will use ironing boards as a standing desk.

We get this from so many of our customers. We are looking at a lot more portable devices, such as devices to support your keyboard, table and workstation in a bag so you can use it no matter where you are. Devices are going to continue to get smaller and smaller. Kids are using phones so frequently we are developing something for the upper neck. There have been unintended consequences giving everyone this tiny screen; kids are texting all day so I think it is good to alleviate some of those issues, too.

Q: How would you define success?

A: When companies start to adopt us they want to invest in human capital as it is everything. They are adopting us as an ROI on their human capital. They do not just want to buy the latest digital gear and provided a great networking environment but rather create the best physical space so their employees look forward to Mondays and engage in a mode of work that is enjoyable. I would define this as success. When we first began we were more of a direct to consumer [type of business].

We have a lot of corporations in the creative areas- Apple outfitted their design team, Wikimedia, United Technologies-they've adopted us. Boeing is another manufacturer, too, we are working with. We have gone from two employees three years ago to 24 employees today. Our sales from our first year to our second has doubled.

From 2013 to 2014 we  doubled again and this year-2015- we will double again. We are not just designing the product but we are building the product, too. About 70 percent of the value of our goods are produced domestically now.

Q: Do you implement your own wellness initiatives at work?

A: We do tend to live what we speak. We do not have a lounge area although we do have a couch. Everyone uses our work stations. We take walking meetings and get outside the office. And we do encourage and try to promote good diet here as well. Our employees are given a new contraption and there has been no push back.

For a lot of employees this has increased their sense of well-being. A number of employees have lost weight-some have lost 30 lbs. in nine months, others 25 lbs. in one year. They said they feel different about themselves all day and start taking care of themselves a bit more. I find that the best way is for them to discover their physicality because they're having to keep their core slightly engaged, which just makes you feel more human again.

Q: Do you set any particular wellness goals within your organization?

A: We do not set goals or do anything formally. It is something we should adopt, but I think, again, we are working on a more physical way it affects the way we behave. We have very quick meetings, they are on time, and they last no more than 15 minutes. We do have a lot of millennials working for us, too.

Q: What do you want to achieve in the next two years?

A: We just brought on our first industry veteran who has worked for Herman Miller and he will bring a lot more drive to the corporate world. I want to continue with the growth and enroll people in this new way of working. For next year, in terms of financial goals, at the rate we are growing we are hoping to quadruple what we are doing.

At some point there will be a moment where people five or 10 years from now will look at old cubicles and say, "Remember when we used to do that?" I believe that point is coming and we are leading the way to allow people to have the support in the office where they feel rested but not like sedentary slugs sitting in chairs.

Q: Do you ever sit in a chair?

A: I like sitting at a bar height seat at a restaurant. Once you get used to a supportive and right posture, it's hard to accept anything else. When you're trying to keep your brain switched on to your individual activity, you have to be switched on all the time. I don't like to sit at dining tables anymore. There is a reason for that-it's not evil, but we shouldn't be doing it all day at the office.

At the end of the day, you're still seated and disengaging the largest muscles-your quads. You are compressing your internal organs when you fold 90 degrees. The effect it has on your metabolism and your actual electrical activity within your body is that your body begins to shut itself down after 10 minutes. But yes I do sit on a couch in front of the television from time to time.

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