Staying on the ball at the office

This column originally ran on March 22, 2012.

 

You’re sitting down, right?

Bad choice.

Recent studies indicate that sitting for any length of time is only slightly better for your health than riding a motorcycle drunk, while smoking, without a helmet. By the time you reach the end of this column, in fact, you’ll be lucky if you haven’t had a coronary.

Sitting is detrimental to your heart, your blood sugar, your energy levels, your circulation, your muscle tone, and your mood. That makes sense, given that for most of human history, people have put little value in sitting for extended periods, preferring to occupy their time securing food and shelter and running from hungry tigers.

The obvious remedy is to move around more. Easy, except for those of us tethered to a desk for hours a day. Experts suggest you quit your office job and pursue a career that doesn’t require a lot of sitting, perhaps as an oyster diver or bank robber. Or at least make sitting less passive by swapping out your office chair for a stability ball.

Everyone’s seen stability balls, those brightly colored orbs people use at the gym. Well, they work in the office, too. Sitting on a stability ball, the experts claim, can improve your posture, increase your productivity, strengthen your core, and help you overcome your inflated ego by making you look ridiculous. They say using a ball at work can even burn up to 350 calories per day (provided you hold the ball over your head and run laps around the office for an hour).

Last week everyone in my department jumped on the new health recommendation. We ceremonially burned our office chairs, those instruments of sedentary torture, and bought ourselves 26-inch-high stability balls in gumball colors.

The difference is remarkable. Compared to sitting in a chair, balancing on a stability ball is a full-on athletic event, requiring all kinds of small but constant physical adjustments to your center of gravity. Granted, in terms of sheer physical demand, maintaining your balance while you type doesn’t give you as rigorous a workout as, say, loading freight on the docks. But you do have to keep from rolling off the ball. And that’s something.

Unfortunately, the six of us sitting on stability balls drastically reduces our department’s gravitas. As a group, we look more like a giant model of a molecule than like a team of dedicated employees. What’s worse, people from the other departments have been teasing us (balls, you might guess, lend themselves to no end of double entendres).

Overall, however, the stability balls are a hit. My officemates and I agree that the balls reduce tension in our lower backs and shoulders and increase our ability to concentrate for longer periods. Plus, bouncing on the balls gives us the giggles.

Still, I doubt we’ll keep them around for very long. Whatever health benefits they might provide, they seem too darn fun to be conducive to a serious work environment.

Anyway, our department is notoriously susceptible to trends. Anyone can look at our past obsession with such fads as avoiding refined sugar (which lasted two months), wearing jaunty hats (three days) and talking with Cockney accents (15 minutes). We’ll tire of the balls soon enough.

But that’s fine, because in a few months the health and wellness experts will no doubt issue a new statement saying that, in studies, rats who sat on exercise balls 6 to 8 hours a day eventually lost the ability to sit still, and their constant giggling annoyed the rats in the adjacent departments.

They will then make a new recommendation, probably for people to hang from trapezes over their desks or take up Irish step dancing — a great lower-body workout that leaves your hands free for data entry.

In my opinion, we should stop trying to come up with ever more creative ways to fight our sedentary lifestyles and go with the tried and true. I bet releasing a hungry tiger into the office would get people up and moving in no time.

It might not do much for productivity, but it would put a sudden stop to all that giggling.