Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
23 Mar

How-to Guide: Standing at Work

Besides stuff like tribal warfare, cannibalism, and high infant mortality, it seems like most any divergence from our ancestral norms is ultimately detrimental, or at least problematic. Nutrition is an obvious one, along with sunlight, sleep, and exercise. The mainstream media is even beginning to question the superiority of modern footwear. And then there’s the seemingly simple act of sitting down in a chair. It seems harmless, but as I discussed last year and a recent NY Times piece mentioned last month, sitting for extended periods of time is strongly linked with increased mortality and metabolic syndrome, regardless of how much exercise a sitter gets.

The chair is a bit like wheat, actually: a relative novelty to which we aren’t physiologically adapted that has become a cultural staple nonetheless. For at least eight hours each day, we twist our bodies into weird Tetris blocks with poor posture and sit, for the most part unmoving, on chairs. When you stop and think about it, sitting down in a chair for extended periods of time seems a little silly. I mean, it’s not even all that comfortable (isn’t that why we distort our bodies with terrible posture – to make sitting more comfortable?). We aren’t “designed” to sit in chairs. We’re certainly meant to stand, but we sit in chairs because we designed them to fit our anatomy, and I somehow doubt that whoever came up with the chair was thinking about long-term effects on our physiology.

Acutely, sitting weakens our muscles, especially in the legs and the hips. When you sit, your glutes are totally inactive. They aren’t being used. They’re stretched out. It’s just one big static stretch, all day long, which weakens them. Strong, engaged glutes are required for effective, natural movement. Running, walking, lifting weights – if you’re doing any of this with weak, inactive glutes from excessive sitting, you’re an injury waiting to happen. Sitting also causes permanent hip flexion. It shortens your hip flexors and makes them tight. Without good hip mobility and strength, your ability to perform the compound lower body lifts, let alone just walk around and perform day-to-day motions, is going to be severely compromised.

Besides, is sitting really all that comfortable? What are we trying to avoid here, really?

Most people just don’t know any better. Sitting down is part of our culture. Try going on a first date at a nice restaurant and waving off the chair. Try being that weird guy that stands in the movie theater, or that chronically unemployed applicant who refuses to sit down for the job interview. That guy is weird because he’s rare; he doesn’t even really exist. Sitting down is about the most uncontroversial societal expectation out there. You could have massive drag-out verbal fights over tipping or saying “bless you” or holding the door open for people, but sitting down in a chair has the wind of consensus at its back.

Which is why lobbying your boss for a stand-up workstation might be tricky, perhaps trickier even than convincing management to let you nap on the job. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about standing – it probably comes off as a bit weird or wacky – but it does require structural changes to your workstation, and changes can be expensive or time-consuming. Many of the larger companies have ergonomics teams dedicated to helping employees sit and work well. Asking them for assistance might work, but whatever you do a new desk is going to be installed and feathers will be ruffled. Sure, if they’re going to ask you to work a full day at a computer, they probably owe it to you to provide a standing workstation, but it’s not a perfect world. People will see your fancy new standing workstation as an extravagance.

“Why can’t he just sit/eat normal food/wear shoes like everyone else?”

If your boss offers resistance, you have a couple options. First, bring the data. Send an email, print out copies, whatever – just create a compendium of powerful references showing the dangers of sitting for hours on end. I’ve thrown a little something together for just such an endeavor:

Australian study (PDF) reveals sedentarism/sitting at work leads to more sitting at home, and eventually obesity. You want a healthy, vibrant workforce, don’t you?

New Zealand study shows that workers who sat for long periods of time were more likely to get deep vein thrombosis.

Excessive sitting was linked to negative metabolic and cardiovascular effects in another study.

One doctor even compared sitting to smoking cigarettes in terms of negative health effects.

Here’s that NY Times piece once again.

To round everything up, healthy employees are productive employees. Healthier employees incur lower health care costs. They miss fewer workdays. They work better, harder, and smarter when they’re at work. And workers with standing workstations are more energetic and more focused (no crippling back pain to worry about). They also take fewer breaks than sitters (PDF), which, once again, leads to greater productivity.

If your boss seems amenable, and you’re feeling cocky, slip in this final link.

Still, jobs are scarce, and employees hold few real bargaining chips these days. Your boss or your department may still balk at any additional short-term costs, even in the face of all that evidence. If that’s the case, I suggest you take matters into your own hands. Build your own. Even if your company won’t spring for a standing workstation conversion, I doubt they’ll complain if you handle it yourself.

A standing workstation doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to work.

When I work from home, for example, and I feel like standing, I just put my laptop on a stack of hardcovers sitting on the counter.

If you like to work out of cafes, you’re in luck. I find that most people in coffee shops avoid the tall tables at all costs, instead opting for cushy chairs or plush sofas, so they’re generally available. Just push the tall chair aside and work standing. Tall café tables tend to be the perfect height for standing and working.

If you’re a laptop user at work, a bunch of books from the corporate library (no one reads those – c’mon) stacked up could work in a pinch.

You could spring for one of the official standing workstations in the link above, but that’s unnecessary. I’d recommend doing what this woman did and spend $20 to build your own. She essentially bought a light baker’s rack that fit on her desk, attached some no-slip shelf paper to the bottom of the laptop, and was done with it. If you have a desktop computer, you’re going to need more room, but you don’t really need a dedicated “standing workstation.” You simply need a reliable surface at the proper height.

Whatever method you choose, just make sure you’re actually comfortable working in the position. You shouldn’t be hunched over, bent at the waist, or straining with your arms to reach the workstation. You shouldn’t be leaning on the desk for support. Standing up to work is about comfort in addition to health, and you defeat the purpose if you have to strain to make it work. Before you buy anything, test out different workstation heights. Measure the one that works and keep that measurement handy when you’re shopping or building.

If I make standing to work seem like a panacea, I don’t mean to, because there are potential problems. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety caution against prolonged static standing, which can increase the chances of “sore feet, swelling of the legs, varicose veins, general muscular fatigue, lower back pain, and stiffness.” (Check your posture if that’s the case!) But the problem isn’t standing, really; it’s standing and never moving, which probably isn’t all that different from sitting and never moving (the symptoms of both are almost identical). I’m not worried about MDA readers being inactive while standing, though. You guys’ll probably be busting out random burpees and lunges in between TPS reports and video-conferences.

Anyone use a standing workstation currently? Got any tips for newbies looking to convert? Let everyone know in the comments section!

rKnight Flickr Photo (CC)

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. I’ve been at it for 1 1/2 years, now. Work bench from Cosco, under $300, nice solid wood top, super sturdy steel construction, and it’s long enough for both the wife & I.


    We do have some barstools now and I go back & forth from standing to sitting to standing.

    Richard Nikoley wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  2. I stand while I write (and work on the computer): I like to think on my feet!



    epistemocrat wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  3. I realize we are talking about standing at work, but I have a related question to the subject of standing vs. sitting at work. I have heard that sitting on a stability ball or a ball used for pilates will help your posture and strengthen your core muscles. Would this be an option to consider if you cannot stand at work?

    Laura wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  4. Great article!

    John Medina goes a bit further and suggests putting treadmills in the office. He goes into it in more detail here:

    Dan wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  5. Four herniated discs in my back lead me to develop my own sit-stand desk set-up. It didn’t cost my employer a penny. I just put my monitors up on the book shelf, which just happened to be at my eye level. I used an old monitor riser for my keyboard and mouse and borrowed a tall chair from our cafeteria so I can sit periodically when my feet get tired, which isn’t much anymore!! Necessity is the mother of all inventions, but it’s interesting to know that this was also a healthy choice! Considering I commute for 3 hours a day on a bus, I thought that this was a pretty good accommodation!

    Appleaday wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  6. I enjoy standing on my BOSU ball…you know the half ball with a solid plastic platform. This gives me cushion and works my balance all day. I can also change my foot placement and stretch my calves.

    Matt wrote on March 23rd, 2010
    • What a great idea! Thanks for the tip.

      Patricia wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  7. What an interesting coincidence: I’ve been standing at work for about 3.5 weeks now!

    I decided that if sitting for 8 hours a day wasn’t good for me, the only alternative was to stand. Luckily, I work for an incredible company, and I didn’t even bother to ask my boss before trying it out. I just harvested a few toner boxes and built a shelf for my keyboard and mouse to sit on, then elevated my monitors on another couple of boxes. It was my “trial run.”

    It wasn’t pretty, but it gave me an idea what it would be like if I committed to it. The biggest problem was that the rest of my desk was a foot below my keyboard. I ended up having to make another shelf to place the things I was working on and looking at.

    Then, last week, one of my co-workers took it upon himself to construct three sturdy shelves about 12.5 inches tall to sit below the three points of my L-shaped desk that touched the ground. (It was a birthday present – thanks Frank!) Three of us lifted the desk onto the platforms, and now my entire desk surface is elevated. It’s freakin’ awesome! Here’s a link to a picture:

    At least two others in the company have expressed an interested in doing it themselves, one of which is also an avid MDA follower. Nobody has made fun of it. Though it comes off as a bit quirky, when people approach my desk, or stand at it like I do, they see how it could be interesting.

    I keep a tall bar stool under my desk just in case I need to rest a bit, but I probably average 5-10 minutes on it per day, if at all.

    All in all, I love it. Initially, the hardest part for me was the psychological aspect. For so many years, I’ve started my day by plopping into a chair. It was like the starting gunshot of my day. Strangely enough, that’s been the hardest thing to get used to.

    As always, Mark, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the new drive to be fit in all walks of life. Thanks for everything!

    Kevin McDonald wrote on March 23rd, 2010
    • The picture is gone. Could you take another picture?

      John wrote on December 13th, 2012
  8. I’m lucky I guess. Right now I work as a baker and I’m always bustling aroundon my feet and don’t stand in one place for very long (think iron chef).

    The downside is that I work nights and I work in the disgusting food industry which is everything but primal ; (

    Melina wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  9. I work in an office that insists on me sitting in my chair. What is the best way to sit?

    I read here a118c3&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss that you should recline in order to open the angle between the hips and the legs. However this creates a neck-forward position which doesn’t seem ideal either. Should I be sitting straight up or reclining?



    Ted wrote on March 23rd, 2010
    • Can you try kneeling and/or squatting at the desk?

      I’ve started alternating my sitting periods at the desk with kneeling, and kneeling hip flexor stretches, kneeling hamstring stretches and so forth.


      Craig wrote on March 24th, 2010
  10. I recently raised my wooden desk at home for this very purpose!

    Victor K wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  11. Standing in one place for long periods of time can lead to many problems as well.

    It’s not as though paleo-man spent hours (or an hour) standing in one place, at least not often.

    The key is variation.

    Moshal wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  12. Glad to see you address this. I’m fortunate to have an adjustable workstation and rarely sit. I’ve even started standing in staff meetings and gotten the evil eye from other managers as they adjust their swivelers and at Brickbreaker on their Blackberries.

    Greg wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  13. Hmm…I posted a much longer thing several hours ago, but it doesn’t seem to have ever made it past the moderators.

    I’ll sum it up here: I’ve been standing at work for 3.5 weeks, and love it. This was a timely post!

    Kevin McDonald wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  14. I guess this is one of the beneficial things about being a teacher – I’m standing and moving around all day. Since I started wearing minimalist shoes (Adidas Jawpaws… the VFF’s don’t fit and wouldn’t fly at my school anyway), I’ve noticed that I feel less tired and my hip flexors don’t hurt as much.

    For the guy looking for good hip flexor stretches, stand the back of your couch. Bring a leg up “indian-style” and then lean forward over your leg. It’s a good kind of hurt!

    shepherd wrote on March 23rd, 2010
    • I’m a teacher also and get to stand and move alot. But what about the kids? Mine are sitting a lot. We move from tables to “criss-cross” on the carpet a couple of times during the 2 hour reading lesson. I’ve tried letting them stand some, but they get rather unruly. Any suggestions?

      jacsuza wrote on March 23rd, 2010
      • Me too – I’m standing and moving around but they are just sat there falling asleep. I work in a secondary school so they’ve been conditioned for at least 7 years to just sit there – I try getting them to stand up and move around a bit and you should hear the groans. Plus they can’t still still – unsurprisingly – they’re always rocking on the backs of their chairs, tipping them up. Still I can imagine what response I’d get if I suggested we installed standing height desks for them all!

        Jo wrote on March 25th, 2010
        • I would suggest squatting for kids. First off, they’re more flexible so don’t have much trouble getting there; and second, it keeps them from bobbing around so much the way they do on their feet or in chairs.

          Sheila wrote on September 22nd, 2010
  15. I’ve found whenever I’ve had to stand for a longer period than “normal” (ie. at a concert) I’ve gone home with a sore lower back afterwards. I suppose I was essentially standing in the same spot for 3 hours (I don’t dance :), but that just makes me a bit wary of the idea of standing at my workstation all day. Having said that, I am going to give it a try because I’ve got a bit of a sore hip at the moment – as a result of yesterday’s sprinting I think 😉

    Ben wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  16. What is the sit/stand one you have in the picture?

    Joel wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  17. i hate to sit but my solution to the fact that computers are basically always low is that i sit on my legs with toes touching, i find it to be sort of like an excercise stretching wise

    Jerry wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  18. …a few meaningless observations…and some emotional baggage…

    Donald Rumsfeld proudly worked at a standing desk and used it to justify making Guantanamo detainees stand for torturously long periods.

    On a personal note, back in the 90’s I suffered discrimination and retaliation at a public University, and part of the retaliation process was not being allowed to sit on the job until all my work was done–to the horizon. Funny how it left a bad taste for standing on the job.

    I kindly see Grok enjoying the perfect sitting rock, or log, or ledge for hours occasionally. Maybe even Mrs. Grok had him bring the right sittin’ log home. :)

    “Besides, is sitting really all that comfortable?”

    hell yes–parking your bucket in the right seat is one fine joy–health issues aside–where this post should be.

    ron t wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  19. while this would be awesome for me to have at work and prolly more beneficial for the high blood rpessure, diabetes obese people i work with, my boss would eithe fire me for bringing something like this up, or laugh in my face. he s VERY conservative and uptight.

    mallory wrote on March 23rd, 2010
    • Laugh at his Face when he gets a heart attack next time :)

      Ravi wrote on March 26th, 2010
  20. I spent the Fall 2009 semester (16 weeks) with my computer desk raised (I used bricks and pieces of wood) so that I could stand and do my homework. It was great, but I couldn’t find an anti-fatigue mat that worked well with the way my office is designed.

    p14175 wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  21. Is sitting on the floor for long periods of time any healthier? Does it make a difference how the legs are positioned?

    T. Chan wrote on March 23rd, 2010
    • When I took Bradley childbirth classes, I learned “tailor sitting” – essentially cross-legged, or “Indian style” (now more tactfully called “criss-cross applesauce”). They teach this position for all sitting, b/c it automatically accomplishes “put your legs up” w/o forever having to be in a recliner.

      I imagine that tailors and Native Americans got a reputation for doing this b/c it is the most comfy position I know of for long periods of time. At first, I thought of the pain in my back when I fold laundry on the floor, but realized the pain is from slumping while sitting cross-legged. It takes more effort to keep the lower & upper back from curling over, but the pain never comes. Pain is quick while slumping, which seems comfier at first.

      I’ve been tailor sitting all the time, pregnant or no, ever since then (9 years ago). My desk chair, couch, kitchen table, restaurant booths, any time I possibly can. I homeschool, and never force my children to sit in a chair, glad they do for only a little bit each day. The oldest ones (middle school) still squat & tailor sit frequently, b/c it comes naturally when you’re not forced to sit in a chair 8hrs/day.

      MamaGrok wrote on July 17th, 2010
  22. This site has cool treadmills designed to fit under existing desks (no large control panels).

    They are very popular and are on back order, but I’m saving up for one!

    Anne Scott wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  23. I suspect sitting down like the Japanese do is very good for you. I train in aikido and have noticed stronger feet and better posture from sitiing in seiza.

    Alain wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  24. This is actually pretty common in the entertainment industry. Usually for artists because it is a more natural position for them to paint in.

    I think the body motion is also an essential part of creativity. This is why people “get up and walk around” when they are really contemplating something. That plus the change of environmental stimulus… but pacing is engaging your body in your mental process and the hormones released affect how the brain is going to function.

    I see it a lot at movie studios doing CG, and it’s not strange at many game development studios.

    Charlie Wiederhold wrote on March 23rd, 2010
  25. The barstool advice from Richard is great! Variation really is key. Variation between postures and even better, variation between static and dynamic activities.

    Mark, thanks for that last paragraph: standing for 8h isn’t that good either.

    see paleohacks for a comment on the subject:

    pieter d wrote on March 24th, 2010
  26. I’d love to stand up all the time, but my feet cannot handle it. After 3 hours or so of standing/moving around, my feet just plain hurt like the dickens ): So I’m kind of glad sitting is the norm.

    When I was a cashier, standing for 8 hours at a time, it was AWFUL. My feet would hurt so much I could barely walk on them (they felt bruised). Needless to say, I stopped after awhile because I just couldn’t handle the constant pain.

    I bought some nike frees (5.0) but they don’t really seem to be helping make my feet stronger.

    Anyone have any links or advice as to help strengthen my apparently really weak feet?

    Hannah wrote on March 24th, 2010
    • I use to be a cashier and also suffered pain from standing for so long. It was so bad that I kept a pair of crutches at home to help me get around the house after work. I now believe the pain was from improper alignment due to my flat feet. I realize this is against the minimalist footwear promoted hear, but I would suggest Birkenstocks (or similar), as I have found that they work quite well for myself.

      Dee wrote on March 25th, 2010
    • Try some Vibram FiveFingers (they’re shoes, despite the name that seems to indicate otherwise). I just picked-up a pair of them today (the KSO model) and LOVE them. They’ll retrain your muscles to do what they’re supposed to do while protecting the sensitive soles and toes in the process. The next best thing to being barefoot, IMHO.

      Carl wrote on March 29th, 2010
  27. Great post Mark. I have had a desk that I am able to rise to various height, but never really used that function – until now. Thanks

    Here is my desk:

    Sungrazer wrote on March 24th, 2010
  28. The last few months I’ve actually been playing with different sitting styles while driving and sitting at work. I’ve pretty much determined that however you look at it, its is a double edged sword. I’ve been dealing with leg muscle imbalances (glutes weakened and TFL/IT bands super tense) and Been focusing on strengthening glutes and stretching/massaging the other but I sit way too much! I’m in great shape but I work on an ambulance where we sit a lot. We don’t have stations either. In the rig all day. I also teach medical stuff and am always on the road. I really wish there was an alternative to transportation and on the ambulance where I didn’t have to sit so much! I’m doomed! :(

    Kelsey wrote on March 24th, 2010
  29. Great article. It was funny to see this because I’d not really considered it to not be the norm, but you’re right. Standing is great. I’m a stay at home mom with 2 small children so I’m on my feet all day. I do like to use the computer during the day, it’s like my little connection to conversation above the level of a 4 year old. So I like to come and go, read and post as I have time. I keep my laptop perched on top of our fireplace. It’s at just the right height and I don’t have to sit down to use it. If I sit I tend to spend more time than I maybe ought to. It is nice to put my feet up once in a while though.

    sewingmama wrote on March 24th, 2010
  30. I am a chef and stand ALL day long and some times for 10 hours at a time and to sit down is almost a detriment because it’s hard to get back up! For those standing don’t forget rubber mats to stand on to help your legs & back!

    Brenda wrote on March 24th, 2010
  31. I am in my last year of law school and I’ve used a standing desk for a few years now. The first time I saw one, I had to have one. Instead of investing in an over-priced desk, or getting a more modern desk, I went to a lumber yard and got materials to build a base for the desk. It’s worked very well.

    Standing while I’m working/reading/etc. has been a great advantage. It helps me stay alert–whereas I often fall asleep reading while I’m sitting down. I think standing, in addition to all the health benefits, makes me more productive throughout the day.

    It’s interesting that many of the attorneys at the firm I work for have smaller standing desks in their offices. They will organize presentations there, read through their mail, or do some real work. It’s a nice break from sitting all day long.

    Aaron wrote on March 24th, 2010
  32. Brilliant. This makes so much sense. I have implemented this in 15 minutes with whatever I had in the house:

    Fasih wrote on March 24th, 2010
  33. Great post! I bought this workstation from Ikea a few years ago:
    It mounts on the wall so I mounted it at standing height and really loved it! I haven’t mounted it in my new place, but now I’m inspired…

    Maggie wrote on March 24th, 2010
  34. Good Article. I have the luxury of being rather mobile throughout the day but spend too much time sitting in front on computers.
    I’ve always wanted a laptop harness for home use… any thoughts on these?

    Matt B. wrote on March 24th, 2010
  35. I’ve been insisting for some time that I want old-fashioned library tables- the ones that you can stand and work at- for my office. Eventually, that is. Right now my ‘office’ is in a corner at the end of my bed, where creating a standing workstation is not an option. But someday I will have my library tables, shelving, enough bookshelves…

    Laura Minnick wrote on March 24th, 2010
  36. Hi! I’m a P90Xer who is new to the whole Primal idea, and just got the book during the big push last week.

    I saw the article and had to comment.

    About a year and half ago I got this wild hair, and decided I was going to try standing. I work with the internet technologies, so I’m staring at a monitor all day long. I also like to move while I think. I felt like sitting was just NOT doing me any good at all.

    So anyway, I got the Ikea desk with legs that adjust, setup all my gear and away I went. The first few weeks went by and I would notice that by the end of the day my knees would feel a little tight and swelled. While, hiking up the steps in the parking garage, I could really feel it. But slowly over time, each day became easier and easier.

    Now, it’s like completely second nature. I mean my legs feel no different at the end of the day compared to the beginning. I usually just blow up the several flights of stairs like its nothing.

    I really think standing while working has made me feel stronger, and more stable, and I really can’t see myself sitting ever again.

    Like I said, I like to move while think and such, so I actually plan on putting a large square desk in the center of the room, and staking a couple of monitors and such there so I can actually move around the desk and work from all sides… weird huh???

    Anyway, looking forward to learning more about Primal.


    jim wrote on March 24th, 2010
  37. I have standing most of my workday for the better part of a year. I have a bar stool, but find myself using it less and less. Lately, when I do sit, which is probably less than 20 minutes all day long, (not counting lunch, which I usually do sit for,)it feels like a relief, but a minute or two later my energy is such that I want to get up and be on my feet.

    (One of the postures that gives me “stifness-relief” is to put one foot up on my desk while I’m standing. I do that often.)

    I am getting more and more and more used to it over time.

    Any thoughts from fellow standers regarding anti-fatigue mats ? Right now, I stand on a hard floor.

    I would love to try a 1-2 mph tread, but don’t know if I’m ready to go that much deeper into the “Oh, he’s THAT guy,” profile I already have at work :-)

    eddie wrote on March 24th, 2010

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