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. Previously I stood for the majority of my work day and was fairly active.

    However, that all changed with a new position. I spend lots of time sitting in my car now.

    While I do like being “out of the office” I have noticed that my legs are not as strong now. (I can feel the relative weakness when I squat or kneel).

    Sitting transfers the work of supporting the body’s weight from the lower extremities to the lower back and pelvis. This, in turn, cannot help but weaken the glutes and leg muscles.

    These big leg muscles aren’t worked. Calories aren’t burned. And, our midsections spread

    Is it any wonder why back pain and obesity are so prevalent in our “advanced” society?

    Bryan wrote on December 17th, 2010
  2. I started standing at work (data entry) two months ago and haven’t turned back since. People that have never noticed me before are suddenly asking me if I “really stand ALL day?!” and “WHY?!” Some days I’ve had two or three people question me about why I stand.

    It’s been a real conversation starter!

    Dawna wrote on January 12th, 2011
  3. Using a height adjustable stool with a height adjustable desk is best. This way you can rest your weight in your seat but keep your spine and hips aligned properly, as if you are standing. Certain ergonomic stools allow for so much movement, that it can be better in the long run for you than standing all day. This is because you aren’t tiring and possibly then compromising your posture or stance. The best one I’ve found is Move Stool – designed in 1987 by a Norwegian company. Of course, nothing stops the user from sitting on the stool at too low of a height for themeselves, creating the ghastly right angle position that a normal chair would. So, education also needs to follow after these products.

    Leah wrote on January 31st, 2011
  4. I have found the ProStretch to be a valuable addition to standing all day at work.

    http://prostretch.com/

    Right now I wear lace-ups to the office. As soon as I get some minimalist slip-on shoes, I am going to get some sort of foot rolling massager, like this, as well:

    http://www.activeforever.com/p-1971-wooden-foot-roller-massager.aspx?cm_mmc=froogle-_-na-_-na-_-nawooden-foot-roller-massager

    Keeps things interesting and “moving,” even while standing “still.” (i.e., shifitg, “dynamic posture.”

    Eddie wrote on January 31st, 2011
  5. Mark,

    I’ve recently begun standing at work. I place my computer on top of a box sitting on my table. The platform ends up being at waist level (putting my arms at about a 125 degree angle)

    Since I’ve begun, my upper back muscles are super sore at the end of the day. Is this because the platform is too low / too high, and should I adjust? Or is this just fatigue since I’m new to the standing thing?

    Thanks!

    Chris wrote on February 1st, 2011
  6. Chris, Yeah I would suggest moving the desktop higher up. I have mine right at nipple level, and i have found this is a perfect elevation to work/type from. It’s also very comfortable to lean on to change my stance to give my feet/legs/or back a little rest.

    matt wrote on February 1st, 2011
    • Awesome, thanks! I’ll try that out.

      Chris wrote on February 1st, 2011
  7. I like to work by just putting my laptop on top of a 41″ IKEA bookshelf. I stole the idea from a picture I saw of Ernest Hemingway years ago, writing with his typewriter on a stack of books on top of a bookshelf.

    I can’t find that picture, but he’s a picture of his setup:

    http://havanajournal.com/gallery/image_full/33/

    You’ve inspired me to make a more permanent solution. More desk space would be helpful.

    Thanks.

    Kevin wrote on March 1st, 2011
  8. I use a standing desk for all my work, and am typing this at the standing desk right now!

    I’ve been using it for a few years, and only sit down occasionally when I’m on the phone. I bought it from a firm in Ohio that seems to be the only commercial outfit that sells nice-looking standing desks, and it was custom-made to my height and dimensions and kind of expensive, I’ll admit, but worth every penny.

    I would encourage people who are thinking of this to spend the money if they possibly can afford it. It improves the quality of my work life enormously. I viewed the purchase like any other premium product (think grass-fed beef and organic vegetables). That’s why I wanted a standing desk that was pleasing to look at, sturdy, and functional. But that’s just me.

    The one thing that helps make working at a standing desk even more comfortable is a foot rail so you can put up one foot while you work. I spend all day at the standing desk, and either one foot or the other is on the rail most of the time.

    Tim wrote on March 3rd, 2011
  9. An adjustable laptop table will help you to be more ergonomic in many other ways also. For example this table has been designed in a way that it can also accommodate other important accessories that go a long with using a laptop. These devices include the optical mouse and other related devices. Other laptop adjustable tables are fitted with a cup holder for people who love taking coffee as they work.

    ergonomiclaptopstand wrote on March 3rd, 2011
  10. I work in a lab, and we are about to move into a newly renovated space, and when we do I am going to set my computer up at one of the bench height workstations so I can stand, not at the desk height area intended! And in case I need to sit during the day, there are lab stools. I am hoping that it works out well!

    Amanda wrote on March 7th, 2011
  11. Hello Primal Folks:-)

    I’ve been standing (at work,) for months now, maybe a year. It is now a “dialed in,” behavior. I find I am just MUCH more used to standing generally. At home, even if I am sitting with my family at dinner,for example, the urge to at least take, “stand-up,” breaks, springs upon me. My tendency to stand MUCH more (outside of work,) has increased greatly.

    I would LOVE to try a treadmill desk at work, but I don’t see that happening in the very near future for a variety of reasons.

    This sounds SO (!!!) simple, but I am offering it for “PB” consideration anyway. I have simply started to incorporate “rocking,” in a standing position. ( i.e., feet about a very short step apart, one in front of the other, and I simply come up on my rear foot’s toes and then, the rear foot comes down on the heel as the forward foot’s toes comes up, with light weight on the forward heel. Repeat, repeat, repeat :-) Of course, a simple variation is both feet shoulder width, and doing the same sort of movement, side to side. (Reminiscent of a parent holding an infant.)

    I am wondering how this compares with a treadmill at the workable pace of 1 m.p.h. in terms of “mileage” and N.E.A.T. benefits.

    I like it for the PB fitness base, i.e. lots of slow movement, etc.

    “(G)Rocking” in standing position, (supermarket, post office, motor vehicles department, lines, etc., ) is most definitely a life-hack I’ll be enjoying for the foreseeable future.

    Again, SO simple, but I’d not really considered it until recently. (I do take sitting breaks at work with a stool and conventional height chair. Even though I stand 90-95% of the day, it occasionally bothers my back. I believe the rocking and shuffling are going to really, really help with that.

    Your thoughts will be appreciated.

    Standing by :-)

    Eddie wrote on March 13th, 2011
    • I agree, rocking is a very good idea.

      Try also:
      – standing on one foot for periods of time
      – getting a 8-12″ stool and stepping up and down from it occasionally

      Brandon Thomson wrote on March 14th, 2011
  12. I purchased a cheap coffee table ($30) at Target, put it on top of my desk. Perfect height, lots of room for computer, writing space, files.

    Greg wrote on March 29th, 2011
  13. Okay, so I’m pretty late to the conversation, but it’s taken a while for me to realize the horrible health problems that come with sitting all day.

    I took a new job four years ago that required me to be attached to a computer all day. So I sat on my butt all day every day. It’s what everyone does – like Mark says, it’s what’s expected. Simply horrible. Four years of sitting.

    So, no surprise, I put on 20 pounds and am a lot more tired than I used to be. I finally got so fed up with sitting I bought a treadmill desk (treaddesk.com).

    Yes, I bought it myself. Asking the powers that be would have been pointless for the reasons this article stated above.

    But I’m glad I made the investment. I walk for hours on my treaddesk while working. It’s actually quite easy to adjust to walking while typing and reading (I’m on it right now). I only have the speed set at 1.5-2 mph though. Any faster than that and my productivity suffers.

    It was a great investment. I’m all for standing as opposed to sitting, but the human body was meant to WALK. And walk a lot. It feels good to be doing what our bodies were designed to do.

    I still have my regular sitting desk for consultations and such. Otherwise people would think I’m REALLY weird. :)

    Best regards,

    Melissa

    Melissa from Boost Immune wrote on March 30th, 2011
  14. Hey, I designed a stand up desk that I’ve been selling for a couple of years now. My article: Re-inventing the Desk is about having multiple work stations that you can move into all day long depending on mood, task, energy level. http://www.bodyfriendlyfurniture.com/reinventingoffice.html

    I’ve published extensive research on sitting and health on the articles page of the site. Enjoy!

    Patrick Clark wrote on April 1st, 2011
  15. I honestly find stuff like this downright insulting. Many of us actually WORK for a living, and never have the luxury of sitting down at work. Sommeone had to build your cushy office building you know. This is what I hate about men’s health magazine and others like it. We don’t all work in air conditioned offices Mark.

    Ron wrote on April 7th, 2011
    • Why so bitter? A majority of people DO sit in air condition offices all day. Have you ever tried sitting at a desk looking at a computer screen? Obviously not difficult, but god do you feel awful when the day is done. I did for a year, now I’m back doing framing. Some days are absolutely brutal, but I know I have it way better than they do. Hey we may have built that office for them, but they sit in that office and do our paperwork. Think we got the better part of that trade

      Dan Zierath wrote on April 7th, 2011
      • Majority? I’d like to see the numbers, frankly. With all those who not only work in trades/maintenance added to those in manufacturing etc, I bet there’s a lot more people than you think that don’t sit in cushy chairs all day. I’m just tired of every single article I read focusing on drivel like “how to woo the office hottie” etc etc.
        Mark isn’t the one to blame for this obviously, but let’s try to understand that upper middle class white folks who work in offices don’t make up the entire reading population.

        Ron wrote on April 11th, 2011
      • Not most, statistically speaking.

        Helen wrote on June 2nd, 2013
  16. I home-built a walking desk a few years ago, and it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

    Used treadmills are a dime a dozen, and building a desktop using some red oak plywood (with some solid wood for edging and the vertical supports connected to the treadmill’s arms) wasn’t too difficult.

    …and I don’t notice any difficulty typing when the speed is around 2 mph.

    …and it makes a good standing desk if I don’t feel like walking.

    David M. wrote on April 11th, 2011
  17. I built an extender for my desk in one evening with a table saw, some 1/4 inch plywood and 1 X 4’s that I cut down to 3/4″ by 3/4″. All boards and glue, no nails. It works like a dream. I’m not that talented in the workworking field, so someone with a skill saw could probably do the same.

    Be bold. Tell your boss you won’t sit for it!

    James French wrote on April 18th, 2011
  18. I’ve started to do this again at work after having done it for a month-long period about a year ago. The benefits are awesome, despite the weird looks I get!

    Melissa wrote on April 21st, 2011
  19. I’ve been standing at work for over 6 month now. I simply do not even miss the chair. I get so much more done as I move freely from the computing position over to the product area and straight to shipping table (same room) without missing a beat. Chair? Who needs one? I have one I never use now.

    Jim wrote on April 25th, 2011
  20. I just uploaded some new photos of my stand up/sit down modular desk. I show various positions of me using it and I think you get a good idea of the possibilities, such as propping one leg up on a chair or stool, etc. When sitting, it is best to use Active Sitting which is a cross between standing and sitting–an I show the matching Tilt Seat Eco Chair for that.

    Patrick Clark wrote on May 9th, 2011
  21. I use to work in shipping at library hq and it was perfect; I had a standing workstation with a stool to sit if I chose to or got tired. I had to pack boxes with books to ship out, so there was a lot of movement at a slow pace and somewhat heavy lifting. Now they moved me to processing and I sit for 6-8hrs with very little movement and no lifting, it sucks.

    Robert wrote on May 10th, 2011
  22. I’ve suffered from sciatic nerve pain in my left leg since completing a tour of duty in Afghanistan 2 years ago, and had noticed that prolong sitting aggrivated the condition. I happened on the NYT piece Mark mentions, and decided to experiment with the idea. I put my monitors on an existing eye-level bookshelf in my cube and used reams of paper to elevate my keyboard and trackball. Once I figured out comfortable dimensions I found an inexpensive “laptop desk” that matched them and simply placed it on my desk. I’ve been standing at my workstation for 2 months now, no longer suffer from nerve pain, and seem to be sleeping better too.

    Drew wrote on June 8th, 2011
  23. I bought an Ergotron desk with the dual-monitor stand and LOVE it.

    Brian wrote on June 8th, 2011
  24. I’ve started doing this with my laptop – placing it on a box on top of the kitchen counter – as, initially, a frequent break from all the hours I spend sitting down in front of my desktop PC every day.

    One problem with a laptop though, is that with the keyboard at elbow height, you’ll need to look down at the screen, and I can’t help but feel that the slight forwards bend of my neck is far from optimal?

    Miths wrote on June 12th, 2011
    • an easy solution to improving your standing position while using your laptop is to connect an external monitor and keyboard.. you can actually set up a dual monitor with this arrangement. Riser blocks can optimize the monitor position while maintaining a good standing hand height at the keyboard

      Pat Minervini wrote on June 16th, 2011
  25. Been living and working the standing lifestyle for 2 years. Designed my own low cost adjustable modular solution with a goal of take control and provide an answer to getting out of the chair

    Pat Minervini wrote on June 15th, 2011
  26. I use a desktop version of a standing desk which allows me to stand all day long or to sit down when I need to. Its a great solution! I think more and more people are realizing that sitting for long periods is truly bad for your health. The Stand’nSit is a new product available at StandinGoodHealth.com

    Lisa Tullius wrote on June 16th, 2011
  27. This is totally gaining ground and I know a few people who’ve taken this on. Not at the office however, but for those working at home.

    All I need to do is prop up my Ikea desk and “hang” it on the next shelf up. I knew there was a reason that I never tightened the bolts on that thing 😉

    mike wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  28. Thank you very much for posting this great content! Looking forward to reading more!

    Fumiko Banos wrote on June 28th, 2011

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