Does sitting at a desk all day make your back ache? Be glad you don’t live in the 1850s. “In the Victorian era, upright posture on a rigid, unsupportive seat provided an opportunity to demonstrate refinement and willpower and thereby morality,” my former colleague Heather Murphy wrote in her fascinating history of the office chair in Slate in 2012. The first desk chairs with backrests were criticized for encouraging laziness and depravity.
Few people today would argue that allowing a cushioned seatback to support your spine is a sin, but office culture still prizes upright posture and minimal body movement. Modern office chairs are designed to allow us to sit more or less motionless for hours on end. High-school and college students interviewing for their first jobs are encouraged to throw back their shoulders and sit up straight if they want to project confidence and competence. Etiquette experts hew to a Victorian-lite view of posture and fidgeting. “Do you know how it looks to have you sitting up there in front of everyone with your knees crossed and your legs swinging?” scolded Judith Martin, the original Miss Manners, in a 1999 column. “Can’t you sit still even for one minute?”
I’ve never been great at sitting still, even for one minute. I shift in my office chair almost constantly, tucking my legs underneath me, stretching my arms overhead, adopting various pseudo-yoga poses to make my back more comfortable. And though Victorians surely wouldn’t approve of my workday squirming, the last few years have vindicated my habits from a scientific perspective. As we all know by now, sitting still for long periods of time has been linked with heart disease and death. And standing still, perhaps at a desk built for the purpose, isn’t much better—spending the day idling on your feet puts strain on the spine, joints, and vascular system. “Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing,” said one of the authors of a recent study.
Getting office workers to incorporate more movement into their desk work is no simple task. Most white-collar work is done on computers, which are designed to be used while still. Anyone who’s tried working on a laptop while seated on a bumpy train knows that even a little bit of jostling motion can make it very difficult to type. And then there’s the fact that moving around while you’re working can be very distracting. I’ve never been able to get into the treadmill desk that arrived in Slate’s office last year, not only because I make tons of typos when I’m on it, but also because I cannot stop thinking about the fact that I’m walking when I’m on it. Treadmill-desk devotees say that if you stick with it long enough, you eventually forget how weird it is to be walking at a 2 mph pace while composing emails—but the learning curve is steep enough to turn many people off before they’ve walked their first 5 kilometers.
Enter the Hovr, an Indiegogo-funded under-desk device that purports to allow low-impact, nondistracting movement all day long. The Hovr is essentially a swing for your feet: a metal rod with a footpad on each end hangs from a metal stand, or the underside of your desk, via a sturdy strap. (The desk-mounted version is $89; the stand-mounted model is $189.) With the koanlike tagline, “Sit down. Start walking,” the Hovr promises to increase calorie burn by 20 percent and improve circulation. “By allowing for multi-directional leg movements and leg swinging that mimic walking, Hovr may help counteract many of the problems associated with extended sitting,” claims the Hovr website.
I was excited to add more movement to my repertoire of desk positions, so last month Hovr’s chief operating officer, Gen Harada, stopped by my office to lend me a stand-mounted Hovr and show me the ropes. With the footpads suspended a couple of inches off the floor, I began swinging my feet forward and back as Harada and I chatted. It made me feel like I was a kid again, with legs too short to reach the ground. Harada showed me a few different movements: swinging your feet from side-to-side, swinging your feet in circles, rolling your ankles around on the footpads, pushing each footpad up and down like a seesaw. The possibilities are more or less endless: If you’re feeling an itch to extend your lower limbs in a certain direction underneath your desk, the Hovr will let you do it, and you probably won’t even have to adjust the height of your chair to use the Hovr comfortably. “I myself, still after using it for months, will find certain muscles firing more than others while using this device,” said Harada as he rotated his legs back and forth in a move he called “the helicopter.”
Hovr isn’t the only under-desk movement device—for lack of a pithier term—to emerge from the health panic over sitting. The Cubii, an under-desk elliptical trainer, and the forthcoming Cycli, an under-desk stationary bike, are two other such devices to generate excitement on crowdfunding platforms. But Harada claims that the Hovr is the only product in this category that enables fully unconscious movement. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic who measured the Hovr’s metabolic effects describe it in their paper as a “device that promote[s] leg fidgeting”—a peculiar turn of phrase that captures the unthinking kind of motion that the Hovr aims to induce. Using the Hovr isn’t supposed to feel like exercising; it’s supposed to feel like bouncing your leg or jiggling your foot without even realizing you’re doing it.
Of course, bouncing your leg or jiggling your foot without even realizing you’re doing it is exactly what the Victorian-inspired office etiquette czars have been warning us against for decades. It’s not easy to override the deeply ingrained notion that acting professional means sitting still, being careful not to make any sudden movements. And the rise of the open-plan office has forced all of us to be more conscious of how our work habits affect the people around us and how we look to those people. Using the Hovr at my desk, I worried that the perpetual movement of my feet in my colleagues’ peripheral vision would distract or annoy them. But my co-workers who sit near me assured me they didn’t notice a thing—a sign that fidgeting might not be as much of a reputation-killer as I once believed.
The Hovr isn’t perfect—it takes some adjustments to find a comfortable height for the footpads; the stand squeaks on occasion; and if you get too enthusiastic with your swinging, the footpads sometimes bang against the stand or your chair. But if enough people use it—and overcome the initial self-consciousness that comes with swinging your feet back and forth at your desk—perhaps it will make a dent in the longstanding cultural bias against fidgeting, jiggling, bouncing, and squirming in the workplace. When a future Miss Manners asks, “Do you know how it looks to have you sitting up there in front of everyone with your knees crossed and your legs swinging?” maybe the implied answer will be “Normal.”