Beyond Standing Desks: Portable Outdoor Workstations

A note from Paul: I’m happy to introduce Kamal Patel’s first post on PHD! Kamal is the funniest and maybe smartest guy in the ancestral health movement. A Ph.D. candidate in nutrition and a leader in the Ancestral Health Society, you may know him from PaleoHacks or Paindatabase.com. For more, check out Kamal’s bio on our About Us page. Welcome Kamal!

Goal: Do some computer work outside a couple times a week. Get maximal benefits from the sun in a minimum amount of time, while fitting all the necessary gear inside a backpack.

Resources: Tiny budget, free Amazon Prime shipping, access to a sunny park.

Why do computer work outside?

Hi, Kamal here (see below Shou-Ching for a short bio). I love sunlight. You probably love sunlight too. Turns out the sun is important for things outside of just vitamin D production. Ever wonder why indoor cats gravitate towards sunlight, even though they get their vitamin D from food? Probably not, since it just makes intuitive sense that animals want to be outdoors. The desire to be free of inside confines applies not just to indoor cats but also to indoor humans. Yet indoor humans sometimes need to see peer-reviewed articles before changing their habits. Don’t fret, we’ll start with a couple of those before delving into five specific steps for creating an outdoor workstation.

Escape plot foiled by hammock

My kitty’s escape to sunlight, foiled by a vicious hammock

Sun exposure increases production of endorphins and nitric oxide, which can translate into benefits for both pyschological well being as well as disease prevention. Light boxes benefit not only seasonal affective disorder but also non-seasonally linked depression. Brief but regular exposure to ultraviolet light from tanning beds can help the mysterious and painful chronic condition called fibromyalgia, and sunlight may benefit pain after surgery. The draw of UV radiation is so powerful that frequent tanners can literally get addicted to catching rays. Unfortunately, the “pro-sunshine” lobby isn’t pouring billions into research on sun exposure, so the specific mechanisms of sunlight benefit will likely remain more mysterious than the mechanisms of blockbuster medications like Viagra and Prilosec.

Step 1: Dress for success

Look at your skin. Does it look more like Paul’s, or does it look more like Kamal’s?

paul_kamal

Debating who has worse posture

If it looks like Kamal’s, you might be getting vitamin D not-at-alls (PS: that’s a rhyming mnemonic). Let me explain. I first got my vitamin D tested in 2008, and it came in at a whopping 19 ng/ml…even with taking a multivitamin most days and getting sunlight at lunchtime! As you probably know, pigmented and/or tanned skin serves as sunscreen, making it tough for darker people to synthesize vitamin D without very long sun exposure times. Indians may also produce less active vitamin D (calcitriol) from a given amount of sun exposure due to genetic predisposition.

But my problems apply to you lighter-skinned folk as well — my outdoor lunch excursions were done while wearing business casual clothing with short sleeves. This means covered torso and legs, leaving only about 25% of my skin exposed for vitamin D production. If you factor in things that can lower vitamin D production further, such as cloud cover, not laying down horizontally, higher BMI, and increased age, then it might be worth it to create a “sunlight maximization” strategy. 

How serious are you about getting that extra sunlight? If you’re moderately serious, consider small changes like taking off your shoes and rolling up your pantlegs a bit while sitting in the park. If you’re extremely serious and okay with looking strange, consider occasional use of…mesh basketball jerseys! Yup, those cheapo mesh tops are made of thin material covered with tiny holes. One day I’ll buy a UV meter and check the actual numbers, but my suspicion is that wearing such a jersey would greatly increase skin exposure to the sun, perhaps doubling it or more. I bought my jersey for about $10 on Amazon, and sometimes change into it before leaving for the park. If you don’t already have blue-light blocking glasses to ratchet down light exposure before bedtime, you can buy a pair of those plus a jersey on Amazon in order to level up to free shipping.

 

Step 2: Acquire tiny chair and tiny laptop

Now that you’ve freed up enough skin to get some substantial sunlight, the next step is to assemble your outdoor office. This part is fun. Eventually you’ll want a small chair, especially if you’re planning on spending many hours working outside. To get a chair that you can stuff in your backpack, just head to REI or any place that sells camping gear. I chose a collapsible model at REI called “Flex Lite” that weighs only 1.75 pounds and folds down to 14×4 inches. 

portable-chair

Tiny chair and tiny laptop fit into backpack with plenty of room to spare.

Laptops are expensive, so you can totally just use whichever model you have. BUT…if you have a few bucks to spare or your current model is in need of replacement, I’d recommend getting an ultra-light laptop, at under 3 pounds. That way, you can fit the tiny laptop and tiny chair along with a hearty lunch in your backpack. Just remember that a laptop with a matte screen works much better than a glossy screen for outdoor use.

Step 3: Optimize ergonomics

The name of the game when working at a computer is to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Simply by being outside, it will give you more incentive to get up and walk around once in a while. But there are other ways to introduce some structured change-of-posture. You can set a timer for every 20 or 30 minutes or get an app on your phone that reminds you to get up. You could also take a break from sitting in the chair to sit on the grass. Note that sitting with feet in contact with the earth (aka “earthing” or “grounding”) is speculated to have some health benefits, which is another bonus for getting in some outdoor office time.

For those with wrist problems, consider switching up your input method every now and then. Switching from right to left hand on occasion is the easiest way to do this. Other ways are switching from trackpad to mouse or trackball and using keyboard shortcuts more. Later this summer, a motion-detecting input device called “Leap Motion” is coming out that will allow you move the cursor with your MIND! Just kidding, not with your mind. But it does allow you to move the cursor with your hands in the air, Minority Report style, reducing much pressure from overstressed wrist tendons and ligaments. Fancy gadgets aside, if you’re going to spend more time outside, it’s a perfect opportunity to think more about varying your working position and revisiting ergonomics.

Step 4: Get pumped

This is going to sound cheesy, but so be it. Working outside can make you feel more alive. The transition from typical cubicle to standing desk is exciting. Work typically takes up the majority of one’s adult life, and standing cracks the mold of being a robotic office cubicle worker. Incorporating some outside work time removes so much of the drudgery aspect from work that it can confuse the most pessimistic of brains.

Normalizing circadian rhythm is an essential part of the health equation, and a complementary factor is being outdoors in the sun. “Sick building syndrome” doesn’t get a ton of research attention, but it’s a very real thing. One reason outdoorsy vacations provide a sense of well-being could be a lack of droning artificial light, stale air with concentrated indoor pollutants, and disgruntled coworkers. Even an office full of windows isn’t perfect. Office windows filter out UVB rays (meaning no vitamin D production or improved mood through endorphin release) but allow some UVA through (meaning staying indoors behind a window doesn’t keep you risk-free from skin damage and cataracts).

Step 5: Get outside already!

office-supplies

Directions: Stuff into backpack, leave for park while whistling CCR’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”.

Above are my typical outdoor office supplies, all of which easily fit into a normal-sized backpack with room to spare. From the top left, there’s a travel-sized sunblock, laptop, collapsible chair, flipflops, coconut chips plus sardines in olive oil, and mobile wifi device. If you don’t want to get a mobile wifi device, you can usually get free or cheap mobile wifi from your smartphone.

In terms of practical recommendations, I advise people with school or office work to gradually spend more time working outside. If you find yourself able to be productive working outside, only then consider buying a chair or other outdoor accouterments. Wearing a mesh jersey might seem drastic, but it has a couple benefits. For darker-skinned individuals, it can substantially decrease the prolonged time needed to produce vitamin D. Very light-skinned individuals who are at higher risk of skin cancer could wear sunblock on parts of the body that are more prone to skin damage (like the face) and couple that with producing vitamin D from a jersey-clad torso.

To reiterate because of its importance, a critical concept for office work is VARIATION. The capital letters are to show that I’m not joking around. Combining typical indoor seated work with at least occasional standing work and occasional outdoor seated work is a solid ergonomic base. Increasing the standing to a few hours a week may result in weight loss of several pounds a year. When indoors, a “microbreak” of under a minute could be spent grabbing some water, taking a lap around the office, or climbing a set of stairs. These microbreaks have been shown to reduce muscular discomfort without compromising productivity. When outdoors, microbreaks are pretty much just awesome. Breathe in some fresh air, stare at the clouds, say hello to the doggies at the park. All the studies in the world can’t relay just how nice it is to work outside a couple times a week.

Leave a comment ?

71 Comments.

  1. Sigh. Now that I work at home, I have no excuse for not getting more variety in where I work (I’ve already tested … my wi-fi extends to the back patio). Thanks for the encouragement ;).

    • Beth, for every hour you spend working outside, I pledge to spend an hour and a half outside surfing the web. Let’s do it! Really though, if your wi-fi extends to your patio, it’s go time. For those who have weak wi-fi signals, I think some stores sell signal boosters.

      • Alright everybody let’s make Kamal sit outside surfing the web 24/7! All it takes is 16 people pledging an hour per day! 😎

  2. Marta Eleniak

    While I enjoyed the article I am disappointed because I was hoping it would have some wonderful new device that allowed you to see the laptop screen while working outside without having to hide under a blanket which would not give you much sun exposure 😉

    • Hi Marta,

      Ultraviolet light is highly scattered by the atmosphere (even more than blue light, whose scattering makes the whole sky blue), so you don’t need direct sunlight to get vitamin D, and bright outdoor light helps circadian rhythms even if you are in the shade. So the key is to shade the laptop screen from something that is high enough that it doesn’t block skylight from reaching you. A tree would work, or you could sit on the polar side of a house (north side in the northern hemisphere).

      • Along those lines…the one time I used a glossy-screen laptop outside, it was while sitting against a large tree. If the laptop screen isn’t angled too far back, a large tree really helps reduce reflections.

        Cranking the brightness up all the way (which reduces battery life…can’t have everything) and tilting the screen as far down as comfort allows could be enough to counteract even very bright sunlight.

  3. I echo Marta. The screen glare is the main problem with bringing laptops outside. How to get around that?

    • With the power of foresight, I purchased a matte screen laptop that has no glare. But for those with shiny screens, they sell matte screen protectors. If you want only temporary matte, there are a small number of static-cling temporary glare guards.

      • There are a couple other ways to work outside too, if you have a shiny screen laptop. If you have stuff to print out and read, you can do that. Or if you have pdfs to read, and a (non-shiny) kindle, you can upload pdfs to your kindle and read it outside.

    • You will need a cardboard box, just put it on its side and put your laptop in it. You could also get/make something like this: http://www.ohgizmo.com/2007/04/03/the-sunshade-for-laptop-use-in-the-sun/

    • I have found that an iPad works real well. Wear some polarized sunglasses and turn the iPad horizontally. The polarizing filter on the iPad is designed to work vertically but if you wear the polarized sunglasses you need to turn it horizontally otherwise the screen will be black. Don’t let it get direct sunlight for too long though because it will get overheated and lock up.

  4. Kamal, happy to see you on the PHD page, and excellent article! Was it written outside?

  5. I love it!

    🙂 Go get grounded.

  6. Kamal I love this. More of your writing and more cats plz. 😉 xo Deb

  7. Marta Eleniak

    Thanks Kamal and Paul. Very glad to hear about still getting light benefit when sat in shade. That’s my preferred way ironically to enjoy a nice day. When I go on holiday to Lanzarote I like to get a downstairs room so I can sit on patio in shade enjoying the sunny outside without being too hot, being able to use my gadgets and without having to be slathered in sunscreen although I know the rays will still reach me is not as bad. I hope I am still getting enough light being on the patio shaded by balcony above me. p.s. I loved the cat picture too!

  8. Welcome Kamal! This is a great subject.
    But to be frank: This article is poorly written and deserved better editing. You have to search for the content and the rest is word soup.

    • Thanks for being frank, Maarten. I do tend to write in a wordy (some might say scattered?) fashion, but then again I enjoy consuming fictional word soup myself. So in conclusion…there is no conclusion.

      • There’s nothing wrong with that 🙂 It’s just that as a writer, I can see you could’ve removed 2/3 the words, without loss of content or wittyness, which makes the remaining 1/3 much more appealing. This may be a matter of taste though 🙂

        • Good point. The length is something that gave me pause, so it’s good to know at least one person prefers shorter articles.

          I can preface the articles with a summary like this “Dear Maarten: vitamin D is good, so is other stuff, go outside now. (sources available upon demand)”

          • Hahaha 🙂 I actually do like long texts when every sentence is well-defined and adds something to my life. Attention is a currency! And I’m willing to spend it on knowledge, laughter and a feeling of being connected to other people. Your text actually does supply all three. It just hasn’t been edited which makes it an expensive one to read.

          • I see you speak the same behavioral economics language that Paul speaks. The next blog post will assuredly be a less expensive read, with the same or only marginally smaller reward. You might say we’ll have reached a Nash Equilibrium? Unless that doesn’t fit.

          • Like 🙂

  9. Marta Eleniak

    Do you get the same grounding benefits from being on sand on a beach? I live near one so it is my park.

    p.s. I love writing so tend to write loads (a 2 paragraph email can end up 2 sides of A4) because I enjoy the cathartic flow of self expression. You could do it newspaper style and bullet point the key points at the start, then go into the detail. I got enjoyment from your enjoyment of writing Kamal.

    • Good idea Marta. I write emails like you do, and wrote even longer emails before becoming self-conscious about them. And when I get long emails from someone else, I’m like “Score! A whole afternoon’s reading!”

    • Oh yeah, and sand is a great conductor if I remember correctly, especially wet sand. And if you’re going to go all out alternative woo woo, the beach also provides negative ions for extra speculative health benefits!

      Bare concrete is also a conductor, but sealed concreate (which would be a bit shiny or very smooth) is not, nor is asphalt.

      • Marta Eleniak

        Thanks Kamal. That’s good news. I may just forget the work and have a paddle. Too much time on the laptop anyway.

  10. So I assume the sun block is non-toxic and the sandals are leather? I won’t get little dots of tan from the meshed basketball jerseys will I? 🙂 I think they have shorts too.

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  12. Hi Kamal,

    Excellent guest post on one of my favorite topics! Btw, I have a pick taken of me at another conference that makes your and Paul’s posture seem perfect.

    The great thing about working at UCLA is that nobody cares if a professor walks around campus in a tank top, shorts, and Luna sandals (though my colleauges often make silly comments like, “you look all summary!” (Duh, it’s summer!) UCLA had the foresight to install a lot of outdoor laptop stations when it was built decades ago. They’re called low walls, and I have found a half dozen or so situated in sunny/shady mixed grassy locations that are just wonderful to work at. I rotate among them in whimsical fashion to make sure I get vitamin D, outside time, AND VARIATION! I have published a number of papers on variation, so I know how important it is to making a healthy human.

    • At AHS 11, I had a very serious level of UCLA envy. Actually, I think when I googled you back then, one of the websites showed you chillin’ in a tank top.

      Have you ever thought about what latitude your family comes from and whether that might have effects on your weather preferences? Of course most people like warm and sunny weather, but my ancestors lived at 19 degrees latitude in India, which happens to also be the latitude of Honolulu. So that means I should probably visit Hawaii as often as possible.

      • I’m a mutt, with my dad’s side contributing British and German heritage, and my mom’s side contributing Lithuanian and Ukranian jewish heritage. I think my complexion takes after my mom’s side, as I run a little darker than my father’s side of the family and turn a nice tan in the sun. I’ve lived in Florda, New York, Boston, and Ohio before moving to Los Angeles. LA feels just about perfect for me in just about every respect, sun included!

  13. Dear Kamal, in Step 2 you appear to be wearing a trench coat. Would this not mitigate any of the benefits you describe?

  14. Hello Kamal and Paul,
    With regards to your debate on worst posture…can I suggest for you to look into Esther Gokhale’s method and book (8 steps to a pain free back)? She is a lovely and very knowledgable person, and her method brings us back to primal posture, even if you don’t suffer from back aches but just a bad nerdy 😉 kind of posture… gokhalemethod.com

  15. Dear Kamal, i’m totally agree with you, i’m ready now to work outside on my website 😀

    This is much better than my bed or desk!

    Thanks!

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  17. Beware of the huge doses of EMF radiation coming directly to you when working on a wi-fi laptop
    http://www.citizensforsafetechnology.org

  18. I don’t look like Kamal most of the year but when summer arrives, I tan very fast and almost look like him 🙂 I am from Berbère descent and as such, even though from a fair-skinned ethnical group (Kabyles), I don’t need to have a sunscreen, nor I am blinded by the light intensity. I lived in Canada for a while and my vit-D levels were so low I had to supplement big time for many months (especially winter). Same now, I live in Scandinavia and I stuff myself with fatty fish, herring, etc, pastured eggs every day, and when sunlight is there, I expose my skin as much as possible. I commute every day to work (20 miles) and that’s also a great time to get some skin exposed to UVs.

    • Hold on…Kabyles like Zinedine Zidane?? I admit, had to look that one up.

      One thing I’ve wondered is how much vitamin D Scandinavians get during the 24-hours of sunlight period, and how late in the day you can get appreciable amounts. It’s probably in a paper somewhere out there.

  19. Hi Kamal,

    Yeah, Kabyle as in Zidane (he could be a distant cousin of mine … Kabylie is not a huge area 😉 ). Anyways, as a kid I used to go to Kabylie during some of summer vacations and what surprised me every time is the amount of sunlight. I would play all day long outside and come back super tanned (just like any other Kabyle kid living down there). Since I grew up in northern France where the weather mostly sucks, I did not always enjoy the amount of sunlight I should have experienced had my parents stayed in Algeria …

    Scandinavians don’t get much vit-D from the sunlight, except during a narrow time window around early summer time. They literally burn themselves and I must say most of them don’t look right (either very pale and occasional patches of red skin, or completely red-brown as in overexposure for way too long).

    They mostly get their vit-D from herring and cod liver oil.

  20. Have been using your diet and IF for several months now with much success – thank you! Have been trying to move my sister towards it with no success as a matter of fact she looks for things to negate it, the latest being the news that hit recently about a Harvard study that shows people who skip breakfast have a greater chance of dying of heart attack. What say you??!!

    • Hi Susan,

      The ability to fast is diet-dependent, as we discuss in the book. The more the macronutrient composition of your diet resembles the composition of your body, the more tolerable fasting becomes, since during fasting we are nourished by self-cannibalization. Also, better micronutrient improves the ability to fast. There is plenty of evidence that with a good diet, intermittent fasting is beneficial.

      Sick people tend to have heart attacks when under stress, so it’s not a surprise that fasting, in people not accustomed to it, is a source of stress and a risk factor for heart attacks.

  21. Thanks for the quick response Paul! Is it safe to do IF every day?

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  24. Hello Kamal or Paul

    I was hoping you would comment on using a tanning beds. It seems to me that I’m hearing that Vit D supplementation may not be as beneficial as hoped.

    I have an auto immune issue (ulcerative colitis) and even though I supplement (5000 units on most days) my Vit D status stays low. When my UC showed up, my level was 21. I live in Canada and I get a nice tan in July and August but the other months are not that conducive to sun exposure (think snow and blackflies!) It seems I may also have low bone density. An x-ray of my foot shows osteoporosis after I was non weightbearing for 8 weeks following a compression fracture. (waiting for a bone density test) Needless to say I am alarmed/worried.

    The Vitamin D Council, at one time anyways, endorsed a tanning light(can be seen on Dr. Mercola’s website). There are different combos available UVA and UVB rays; red light and blue light and an electronic ballast.

    I do my best to follow PHD. I was (real food)low carb prior to that. When I got my UC diagnosis 2yrs ago I went 100% gluten free. Recently went dairy free because of the UC. I take a lot of the suggested supplements plus probiotics and recently added L-glutamine which seems to be helping my UC symptoms. I am unable to source healthy liver so I supplement pasture raised freeze dried liver one week and cod liver oil the next.

    I’d really appreciate your thoughts, please.

    • Kamal/Paul any comment on getting vitamin D from tanning beds. Like HM I saw that Dr Mercola article and was wondering what your thoughts were tanning beds.

      Thanks

  25. Are these smartphone programmable lights (though very expensive 💡 )a solution to help with circadian rythym entrainment? They are LEDs.

    http://www.meethue.com/en-CA

  26. Hi Paul,
    I was surprised to read that you seem to promote wifi (in order to get out doors). I thought wifi is not healthy though. I would appreciate your understanding on possible damaging effects of wifi. I thought most in the healthy paleo type circles tend to try to avoid wifi so I would love to hear your views on this topic.
    Thank you.

    • I think you are referring to Kamal’s discussion. Personally I don’t promote WiFi — I think shielded cables are absolutely safe while microwaves used by WiFi could have subtle biological effects — but it is more important to get sunshine than to avoid wireless signals. If using the Internet by wifi is what is needed to get you out in the sun, then it’s worth it.

      Best, Paul

      • Thanks Paul. I see what you mean. I can see that sunshine is more important. Do you know of any scientific articles that would indicate that wifi can be harmful? My husband wants to keep wifi on based on reading this report: http://ehs.unc.edu/radiation/emf.shtml

        but with small children in the house and hoping to have another baby soon I would prefer not to have wifi. My husband says he needs scientific evidence that talks about the wave frequencies to convince him otherwise.

        • Hi Claire,

          I would suggest reading the Introduction to this study for a summary of the current state of scientific evidence: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4172002/. Following some of the citation links might help.

          It is really an open question whether it is harmful or not. It will take decades to gather sufficient data to resolve the question. If your husband requires solid evidence of harm, you won’t persuade him.

          Best, Paul

          • Thanks very much Paul

          • To be honest, these studies are beyond my level of scientific understanding but I wonder what my ‘scientific, technology loving’ husband thinks.
            Paul, what is your honest opinion of wifi and mobile phone use based on this current research you shared?

  27. Hi Claire, I found a compromise with my husband in buying an Ecowifi, which switches off the transmitter in standby mode for 90% of the time, and you can program it to switch off during the night e.g. (Wifi curfew), so you don’t sleep with wifi on. I don’t know if it is available in the US, this is a Dutch product developed by a high level technician who was exposed to too much ‘electrostress’ and fell very ill. If you google electrohealth.nl you will find it, it has a translation button. I installed it myself, and it works perfectly. Between 23.00 and 7.00 no wifi in our home, and the transmit power is manually reduced, so its range is limited (no standing desk with wifi 😉 ). Hope this helps.

  28. I am a shift worker. I work 2-3, 24-hour shifts a week. I’m not up and working the entire time as I am on call. Sometimes I work 8 hours of my shift and sometimes the entire 24.
    A lot of information says this is not good for me. However, I deliver babies and am passionate about my work. I do not see my lifestyle changing much for the next 20 years. So what can I do to protect my health?
    I eat PHD as much as possible given my irregular working hours. I try to stick to a minimum 12-16hr fast with coconut oil, broth and tea rather than snacking during a long night. It seems to provide me with adequate energy. I am in a low light situation as much as possible.
    Any other suggestions for shift workers from a PHD perspective?

  29. Having trouble viewing my laptop screen while in the sun. Any suggestions?

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