An interview with Sir Frank Williams, head of the Williams F1 racing team, on the benefits of standing.

When a friend gave the young Frank Williams a ride in his Jaguar XK150 in the late 1950s he didn't know what he was starting. In 1966 his young passenger went on to found Frank Williams Racing Cars to compete in Formula Two and Formula Three then, in 1977, together with one of his employees, engineer Patrick Head, he announced the formation of Williams Grand Prix Engineering. Now known as WilliamsF1 and based in Oxfordshire, the same team still competes in Formula One and has had many years of success, winning seven Drivers' championships and nine Constructors championships, making them the third most successful F1 team in history after Ferrari and McLaren.

Rollover lottery

In March 1986 Frank was returning from the Paul Ricard Circuit in France when he had a serious accident, with his car rolling over six or seven times, leading to his sustaining a spinal cord injury and becoming a C6/7 complete quadriplegic. 'What happened was I broke my neck in France and I was in a French hospital for about a week,' he explained. 'I don't remember any of it really, but Professor Sid Watkins, then the Formula 1 doctor, arranged for me to fly back to the London Hospital where he was the senior neurological surgeon. I was there for a while, then I went up to Stoke Mandeville. From there I went home to recuperate, which is what I'd wanted to do in the first place.' Amazingly, by the end of the year Frank was back leading the team he loved into their most successful period.

Since the accident Frank has been confined to a wheelchair. Now Sir Frank Williams, since receiving his knighthood in 1999 for services to motorsport, he explained his condition: 'my level of movement is typical of C6/7 really, which is that I can move my neck very freely and my shoulders pretty freely and I've got reasonable bicep but that's where it stops. I've got no triceps, and my fingers are in a bit of a mess. My breathing's pretty damn good actually for that level. I've had one day off work from having a bit of a cold in 25 years.'

Long distance runner

When Sir Frank suffered his injury doctors pointed out that, based on studies of people with similar problems, he would be lucky to live another 10 years. His ability to carry on, refusing to let his disability affect his day-to-day work, is legendary. But what drove him on? 'I was always very fit,' he explained, 'I did a lot of long distance road running, all my life really, since I left school. I was 43 when I had the accident so after 25 years of pretty serious road running and training I felt the urge to do something that brought me back to some level of fitness. I figured pushing helps the upper body but standing is good for your bones, which get weaker and weaker through lack of use and it was harder to breathe so I figured it would make you stronger and I thought it was a good thing to do. I've been fortunate in never having a pressure sore and hardly spending a day off work through sickness in all that time.

Sir Frank remembers one specific occasion that led to him investigating the possibility of using a standing chair. 'I saw a bloke at the hospital and he spent all his time on his stomach. I thought honestly he'd had the most terrible car accident; his back was ruined with scars and scabs and whenever I saw him he was on his front and I thought what sort of accident did he have? He must have gone off the road at very high speed into railway sleepers, fence or some sort of rigid structure to rip him apart like that. Turned out later they were just simple old pressure sores. I'll never forget that. And that drove me on to getting the first standing chair.'

Relieving the pressure

'I was at the Paddocks Hospital, a clinic connected to Stoke Mandeville, and they made me do physio twice a day to get my limbs all undone they'd sort of seized up. It was there I saw people using standing chairs. I think by the time I went back for a further three months rehab, within six months of leaving the London Hospital, I bought myself a Levo standing chair and began to try it bit by bit. No turning back. Magic. It was very hard work to start with. But you've just got to do it for five minutes at a time and if it gets all woozy, sit down, and up you go again when you're ready for it ten minutes later.'

It was while at the Paddocks Hospital that Sir Frank first met Gerald Simonds who provided him with the first of many subsequent wheelchairs, for both sitting and standing. Research shows that wheelchair users can be prone to secondary diseases, including pressure sores, which can reduce their quality of life substantially.

Pressure ulcers can be prevented by using pressure relieving cushions and by positioning the user correctly in the wheelchair, but the only position which avoids pressure and has full blood circulation is when standing. There is also good evidence that standing on a regular basis can strengthen the bones. What benefits did Sir Frank notice? 'Just that my breathing was better. I mean I can't tell or feel but obviously if you don't use your bones they begin to waste away, not dramatically but they become more brittle I think, so if I was on my legs for two or two and a half hours a day, I just knew it was good for me. And also being more or less vertical was better for your posture generally,' he continued. 'When you sit in a chair all the time you begin to develop a bit of a tummy, not that your tummy muscles work anymore when you stand up, but it's just better, psychologically. It's psychologically very beneficial as well as physically beneficial and it makes the heart work harder which it should do. It's meant to do that.'

Stand up routine

Sir Frank has a regular routine for standing which fits into his busy home and business life. 'I do slices of 25 minutes, about six a day,' he explained, 'two in the morning before lunch, two in the afternoon before supper, and I always reserve two for watching the telly at night.' He is also aware of the psychological benefits. 'I was always a runner,' he explained. ' I mean if I didn't run a good distance every day I felt unhappy in the evening, so obviously not being able to walk or run at all was quite a psychological setback, but after two or three months being able to stand again was a very big step forward.'

And how do other people react? 'I've never asked, but I've supposed that I look a strange sight standing. I'm aware that people tend to stare at you a bit when you're in a wheelchair but it's not quite the same thing. When you see people standing up in a mobile frame it is very unusual. Wheelchairs are not two a penny but, to quote my friends, they're all over the bloody place these days! But if I was asked if I'd like to meet someone important sitting down or standing up, I'd almost certainly say standing up, providing they get over the first three second shock. I think people find it unusual but actually it's absolutely normal and natural if you think about it. In fact it's bloody marvellous!'

Over the years Sir Frank has had six or seven Levo standing chairs, both electric and manual. With his background, what does he think of them from an engineering point of view? 'Patrick Head, my partner and a great engineer, was a bit blunt but of course he operates a very sophisticated side of engineering; this is practical engineering and its mission is to be successfully comfortable and practical. I got my first electric Levo standing chair in 1987and it still goes. I get it overhauled and get new batteries every few years but it's great. The manual chairs just fold up and I chuck them in the boot almost literally, and pull them out again an hour later. I've got a lighter version that I take when I'm away racing. I've got an electric Levo in the office and a manual one at home.

They do the job. They're lovely.'

Life changer

So finally, how would Sir Frank sum up the benefits of standing? 'The benefits are both physical and mental,' he said. 'Physically it makes your heart work a bit harder and it stretches far more of your muscles. Mentally it's much better to have eye to eye contact in conversations. But it really improves one's health, there's no question about that. It materially helps to avoid pressure sores. I'm preaching a bit but I can't put it strongly enough. There's no question if I hadn't stood I'd have had quite a few pressure sores, like the bloke I saw in hospital. It's been a real life changer.'

Apr 2015

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