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:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I get that sitting for extended periods is not that natural or healthy, but is standing in the same location either?
    I can not imagine early humans standing for long periods of time (the way you would stand in front a desk). Probably they were slowly moving here and there, and spend a lot of their time “sitting” on the ground, cross-legged, or in a squat.

    I don’t think standing in front of a desk for 8 hours is natural either.

    HKay wrote on March 25th, 2010
  2. StrongWomanJanet says:
    An architect-height desk works fine for me; I got mine at IKEA a few years ago. It’s glass and chrome and was very reasonably priced. I also have a mini-trampoline in my home-office so that I can bounce once in awhile to get the blood flowing. Works well to let off steam after aggravating phone calls and project snafus too.
    Posted 2 days ago. ( permalink )

    Glenn wrote on March 25th, 2010
  3. My job doesn’t allow anything other than a chair, I’ve had a sitting job for the past 6 years. What can I do to help out with the stretched out glutes and shortened hip flexors? I can’t even sit on my husband facing him on the couch (stradling him), my hips can’t take it even 30 seconds and then my hips hurt for days afterwards. I’m assuming this is the tight hip flexor problem? How can I fix this? Love your posts Mark!!

    Midgy wrote on March 25th, 2010
  4. I have flat-feet, not the shoe-induced variety, the genetic type that does not improve with any amount of exercise or shoe choice. In fact I am barefoot about 95% of the time anyways. Standing in one place becomes extremely uncomfortable after just a few minutes. When I was young, I would always die in church because my parents made me stand during the song portion. I always wondered why I couldn’t handle standing like everyone else. Anyone else have naturally flat-feet and had anything work for them?

    certaindeath4 wrote on March 25th, 2010
    • See my reply to Hannah above- I have found that Birkenstocks work quite well, allowing me to stand for long periods of time without pain.

      Dee wrote on March 25th, 2010
  5. I want to know if my legs feel tired or sore after trying this for a while, will they eventually get stronger and stop feeling this way? You always hear about grocery store checkers complaining about being on their feet all day. I’m asking if this is because of bad posture and not enough regular muscular health?

    John wrote on March 26th, 2010
  6. Do you really need a treadmill? Can’t you just walk in place? Or, they have those old-school treadmills without a motor that take up less space.

    mariss wrote on March 26th, 2010
  7. Inspired by this post I made a standing workstation using two cheap Ikea tables:

    I like it so far, but I’ve only been standing for 30mins ;). Typing and using the mouse is no problem and I can read a lot better as I’m closer to the display.

    Mario wrote on March 27th, 2010
  8. So I am all for being healthy and becoming more mobile and healthy. However, I recently went to a concert and got a spot on the floor where we stood for 4 hours. By the end of the concert my bad knee was KILLING ME (inflamation + loss of cartilage from strenuous activity for years and years). So the thought of standing up for 8 hours straight sounds like a nightmare. Is there a compromise? Would any kind of compromise even be as effective?

    RSS wrote on April 1st, 2010
  9. Tim Donahey wrote on April 12th, 2010
  10. I’ve tried using a “standard” kneeling chair like you linked to as well as a large exercise ball, but didn’t stick with them very long. Last May I bought a Kneelsit ( kneeling chair (both seat and knee pad are free to rock) and after about two months of adjusting I now use it all day. I think it is superior to a standard office chair where your legs are at 90 degree angles.

    That being said, I’ve been wanting a sit/stand adjustable desk for a couple years and I’m finally going to buy one (probably with a treadmill).

    Jeremy wrote on April 15th, 2010
  11. The NY Times had another article about standing at work. Here is the link:

    Joe Hughes wrote on April 22nd, 2010
  12. Mark I have to applaud you for this post. I am a physical therapist who frequently has to educate the how to and help people work through the cumulative problems that have all but crippled them due to the prolonged sitting they do throuugh out the day. And, it’s not just the sitting at work, its the 1 hour commute both ways. It’s the sitting at the lunch counter, or the sitting at the dinner table. Then off to the sofa for a little TV before they hop into bed and prop their legs up on pillows because its hurts to lye supine with legs extended.
    I appreciated the fact that you have referenced the fact that it is a cultural subconscious norm that we have adopted. When I point out this fact to my patients it comes as a revelation to them, a sort of “Ahaa!” moment. I have found that once this revelation takes place it is much easier to have people buy into the stretching programs that I teach them.
    I also appreciate the fact that you have given your readers, and hence the world, a blueprint to follow to try to change their work space. I will definitely point people to this page.
    Good post!

    Bryan wrote on April 22nd, 2010
  13. I got a custom built stand up desk a few months ago. I just did a write up on it along with a few other ergo hacks.

    I like standing, but variation is key. You need to move around or you’ll get stiff and sore. Having a stool to sit down once in a while helps.

    Toban wrote on April 25th, 2010
  14. Mark, I would also like to suggest to many who may be implementing this particular strategy that, maybe in addition to a soft mat under both feet, that people also use a small box or stool to alternately rest a foot on. This takes the strain off the low back that would come with a static standing posture over a period of time.

    Bryan wrote on April 25th, 2010
  15. Here’s an article in the Times that discusses this very topic:

    Just wanted to share. Thanks!

    Tom wrote on April 27th, 2010
  16. I am a flag person for road construction. I just started a few weeks ago, and normally drive a truck. I do four 10 hour shifts standing all of that time on asphalt. I can attest to the pain that you can experience from static standing. I am going to go buy an anti fatigue mat today and see if this will help at all. I am not allowed to sit at all and the only breaks I get are to use the restroom. Not so sure I am cut out for this type of work! Lol!

    Teri wrote on April 30th, 2010
    • Have you tried Mark’s Primal Fitness Exercises?
      I love the sprinting exercise. It makes me feel energized and, call me crazy, actually a lot younger.

      Bryan wrote on December 17th, 2010
    • The mat should help, but the key is moving. Don’t just stand their statically. Walk around as much as you can.

      I have a standing desk and absolutely love it, but it took me awhile to get it right. I put a box under my desk about six inches in height, and I regularly put one or the other leg on it, like it’s a bar rail.

      Kevin wrote on September 18th, 2011
  17. Fine post, Mark.

    I’ve been playing with this idea for years, until I finally readjusted my old IKEA desk (no longer sold by IKEA) so the work platform stands 4′ (I’m 6’5″).

    Now I just need to find a stool on which the seat is at least 36-38″ high, ideally adjustable and with a foot rest. Any suggestions?


    Luigi wrote on May 3rd, 2010
  18. Any suggestions for “anti-fatigue” mats, to be used in an professional office setting ? TIA

    Eddie wrote on May 7th, 2010

    More proof that standing at work is where it’s at!

    Debra wrote on May 7th, 2010
  20. IKEA sells a great workstation adjustable to standing or sitting height for about $120.00 It’s great. I changed it from sitting to standing height all by myself and I’m not real handy.

    (I have an older version, but it’s pretty much the same.)

    Sofia wrote on May 7th, 2010
  21. Hi Mark
    I have been lurking for a long time in this forum (got your book in February) and have been a devout Grok follower since, with great results. I implemented my “standing workstation” at work placing some old laptop/monitors stands in my desk and now I stand at least half of my office day. And when I seat I use a simple task chair (like those they sell at Sam’s club for less than $20.
    For those interested in a better posture check this site

    WildGrok wrote on May 28th, 2010
  22. Your comments about getting your boss to go along with you and subsequent cube-mate reactions are spot on. Here’s my converted cubicle in 2005:

    Now that I do a lot more work from home, check out what I have in my home office:

    – Kris

    Kris wrote on June 3rd, 2010
  23. Hey all. I’m new to the lifestyle and the website. I clicked on this link in the hopes of finding ways to combat/cope with standing at work not embrace it! So here is mystory..I’m a CNA (certified nursing assistant) and student nurse. Both my current job and future career involve A LOT of standing and walking. At the end of the day, the soles and heels of my feel throb very badly. I can only imagine what they would feel like if I were to be doing this bare foot or in those five finger shoes which I have been considering purchasing. So if I am to belive I should embrace this near constant standing, how can I go about avoiding the pains that come along with it? Any tips? Thanks all.

    Mike wrote on June 11th, 2010
  24. Going barefoot or using minimal shoes and keeping in motion will likely ease your foot pain.

    Good luck!

    Brandon Thomson wrote on June 11th, 2010
  25. I work from home and stand at the kitchen counter with the lap to propped up instead of sitting because my hips have become too tight over time. Plus I feel more energized when standing.

    nathan wrote on June 20th, 2010
  26. What about sitting on a stability ball with your Vibram Fives on? I like to bounce!

    Cate wrote on August 9th, 2010
  27. I moved offices at work. I found a standing “desk”/computer stand with keyboard/mouse tray.
    Today is Day 1 of standing. OMG!!! My feet don’t really hurt (leather soled shoes with little to no cushion) but my quads are KILLING me!! How long will they hurt???

    Jonathan wrote on August 16th, 2010
    • Keep at it: I started doing like 1/2 hour intervals and in a little time was more comfortable standing than sitting. And now I added the stability ball (after using it like two weeks at home) and I am doing great. So now I pass half the time in the ball and half standing.

      atkinsfan wrote on August 16th, 2010
  28. I’m using my short fridge as a stand-up computer desk.

    PrimalJapan wrote on August 28th, 2010
  29. Work while standing also helps me sleep better at night.

    Jeff wrote on November 10th, 2010

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