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

How-to Guide: Standing at Work

StandingDeskBesides 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’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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. I bought an Ergotron desk with the dual-monitor stand and LOVE it.

    Brian wrote on June 8th, 2011
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. Thank you very much for posting this great content! Looking forward to reading more!

    Fumiko Banos wrote on June 28th, 2011
  12. Been doing the standing thing for about 9 months now. Today I added a “balance pad.” Like these:
    (Google Airex balance pad or Aeromat balance pad, etc.)
    Nice :-)
    Of course, YMMV, but enjoy !

    Eddie wrote on July 1st, 2011
  13. I love this post, I’m an IT person and usually sit from 8 – 11 hrs daily. I’m recently experiencing pain in my lower back and my chiropractor told me that I should sit for lesser amount of time. This blog really helps me prove my point to my manager to get me a standing workstation.

    Many Thanks,
    Mohammad
    (Pakistan)

    Mohammad wrote on July 3rd, 2011
  14. Thanks for the article.
    As an Industrial Hygienist, I spend a lot of time on ergonomic issues and most of them anatomical ‘seat’related’ problems. About a month ago, I converted a lab bench into a standing work station and put an anti-fatigue mat on the floor where I stand, the extra little cushion is perfect for standing at the PC and typing for periods of time. Wearing form fitting shoes is also important with good arch support.

    Phillip Sorensen wrote on July 12th, 2011
  15. I have been using standup workstations since 1982 for all the reason you have laid out. Sitting is just to “new” for humans.

    I have only good physical results.

    Very interestingly, and for an extrovert like me, very much fun, has been the need to gracefully help co-workers in knowing how to physically interact with someone who is not “across the desk”.

    Don Ellis wrote on July 15th, 2011
  16. I am a contractor and cannot push for a change in my desk from my employer, since my employer does not provide the furnishings. Further, my place of work *requires* all cubicles to have cabinets over the whole desk area – there is no vertical space to stack books! I tried to get building services to remove the cabinets and they said that was prohibited. I need to stand – I can’t tolerate well the constant sitting and I end up in pain. But who in management cares – labor protections (and common sense) are nearly dead in this country.

    Bruce wrote on July 29th, 2011
  17. Bruce,

    I hate to hear that! Your company needs a good law suit or something. Get some good ammo at juststand.org, I have some of their printouts hanging in my cubicle. Also, check us out at http://standingdeskforum.com. We need to unite standing people!

    Cave Dad

    Cave Dad wrote on August 28th, 2011
  18. Thanks for the article! This really helped get me started in standing at work – which I’ve been doing for 3 months now (apart from meetings, where I’ll stick with convention).

    I found a Rubbermaid hanging file folder tub (lidded) sitting around and it’s about the perfect height for my laptop and super-stable too! Also, it’s really unobtrustive.

    At home, I was able to find a lectern for $20 at a barn sale and it’s great for angling my laptop screen so it’s even better for my neck.

    Jen wrote on September 15th, 2011
  19. All,
    Check out this interesting commentary – standing up for a long period of time isn’t necessarily healthy, either – just making sure that you move every 20 minutes or so seems good enough: http://healthland.time.com/2011/04/13/the-dangers-of-sitting-at-work%E2%80%94and-standing/print/
    Ashley

    Ashley wrote on September 17th, 2011
    • I’m sorry, but this is a dumb article. It’s point is that a standing desk can be bad if you do it wrong. That’s not a reason not to do it. That’s a reason to do it right!

      For example. you have to get the height of the desk right for your height, and then it’s important that you raise the height of your monitor to the correct level of your eyes, so you are not prone to leaning over to look at it. As many other posts have stated, the key is an external keyboard or an external monitor. I use an inexpensive logitech wireless keyboard and mouse, and then put my laptop on top of a box on my desk so that it is at the right height.

      As far as standing for long periods of time, the key is moving, which need be no more than putting one or the other leg on something now and then. I use a box for this purpose. Then, walk around a little bit regularly, which is much more easily done when you’re already standing, rather than sitting.

      By the way, I also didn’t much care of the cheap political shot the author took at the beginning, but I guess that’s Time.

      Kevin wrote on September 18th, 2011
  20. Relaxing is important too. Just like any excersize, you have to rest the muscles. Most people can’t stand ALL the time. The Dynamic Office has four positions: standing, active sitting (almost as good as standing), lounge position, laying face down position. http://zafu.net/dynamicoffice.html

    Patrick Clark wrote on September 18th, 2011
  21. Hi there, just wanted to mention (if nonone has already) that ‘prolonged’ standing at work without sitting at all – is linked to abortion, birth defects, arthritis, strokes and heart circulation problems (www.hazards.org/standing/) so its good to have a seat at work so you can stand for a while and sit for a while, best is to adjust your position regularly.
    thanks

    rob sutcliffe wrote on September 22nd, 2011
  22. StandinGoodHealth has the solution! We are a new company located in Colorado and have just launched our new product, the Stand’nSit Modular Workstation. An affordable adjustable height workstation converts an existing desk to a standing desk and then folds away when you need to sit down.
    http://www.standingoodhealth.com
    find us on facebook:
    http://www.facebook.com/StandinGH

    Lisa Tullius wrote on September 22nd, 2011
  23. Here is my criteria for what makes furniture body friendly, people friendly and back friendly:

    1) Uses four primary positions which put the body in alignment (or neutral): standing, active sitting, lounging, and lying down.

    2) Numerous built-in opportunities for stretching and movement.

    3) Inexpensive and widely available. There are some really great chairs for ‘active sitting’ on the market which are appropriate from some circumstances. However, most people can’t afford them, so they do little to promote the movement.

    4) Adaptable to the modern home, office and conventional lifestyle. Even the office cubice? Why not? Radical yes, but you have to start somewhere.

    5) Minimalist (firm surfaces, planar, small, modular, multipurpose)

    6) Simple elegance. Built for function and beauty not for status.

    7) Makes use of existing circumstances and structures as much as possible. (e.g. Doesn’t add a whole piece where only a part is needed.)

    8) Friendly to the planet and the people who made the furniture. (Get away from the ‘Made in China, sold at a big box store’ model).

    Patrick Clark wrote on September 22nd, 2011
  24. have you seen the Stand’nSit from StandinGoodHealth? I believe it conforms to most of your criteria.
    http://www.standingoodhealth.com
    https://www.facebook.com/StandinGH

    Lisa Tullius wrote on September 22nd, 2011
    • I don’t see in any way how this product meets this criteria:

      “3) Inexpensive and widely available. There are some really great chairs for ‘active sitting’ on the market which are appropriate from some circumstances. However, most people can’t afford them, so they do little to promote the movement.”

      John (aka Wish I Were Riding) wrote on September 23rd, 2011
    • I have to agree–unfortunately not too affordable, but it sure does look nice. :)

      Mom wrote on September 26th, 2011
  25. I bought a few simple props to build my standing workstation at work:

    -an Ikea shelf for my desk to put my monitor at eye level (20$)
    -a plastic storage bin that raises my keyboard to standing height ($5)
    -a sterilite desk organizer with drawers that puts my mouse at standing height ($15)

    It’s a very comfortable setup that I’ve been using for 2 years, and it totally got rid of my back pain.

    So cheap that I didn’t even bother to request funding from my company.

    nadia wrote on October 17th, 2011
  26. I went through this same issue (wanting a standing desk) and had a lot of resistance from a boss at a previous employer. I find that showing the research is most important. There is a ton of data out there showing how back pain is the #2 cause for sick leave aside from the common cold. Australian ergonomist and seating specialist, Jenny Pynt, Phd has been studying these same effects of what standing all day can do to you. I’ve found through personal experience and research that simply standing instead of sitting is not exactly the key to comfort: http://varierusa.com/?p=1732

    Lauren wrote on October 19th, 2011
  27. I’ve secured a trial with the Stand’nSit Workstation and I’ve been writing about the experience. I love it so far.
    Here are my posts (only a couple so far): http://standingonthejob.blogspot.com/
    And here’s a link to the product: http://www.standingoodhealth.com/

    Theresa wrote on October 21st, 2011
  28. I had a standing workstation for several months last year because of a back injury and my physical therapist recommended it. When I got to feeling better was around the same time that we moved our department to a new building and I didn’t ask to have the new space raised. I’m wishing now that I had. I still might because I’m starting to experience the numbness down my leg again and it only seems to be relieved by standing up and moving around.

    Shayne wrote on December 6th, 2011
  29. Has anyone visited the Just Stand website? Great content and research surrounding the importance of standing while you work. http://juststand.org

    Christine wrote on December 7th, 2011
    • yes! juststand.org is an excellent resource :)

      Lisa Tullius wrote on December 7th, 2011
  30. On day 2 of standing desk. I use a small box to put one foot up on, when I get tired of standing in a static position. It seems to help.

    Sheila wrote on December 7th, 2011
  31. Christine,
    The just stand website is excellent! We at StandingoodHealth remain committed to delivering a solution to the problem of a sedintery lifestyle and also use our sit and FB page to help make current articles and information available.
    Hope you have made the commitment to StandinGoodHealth
    Best
    Pat

    Pat wrote on December 8th, 2011
  32. I read the article on the dangers of sitting about an hour ago and immediately decided to try out standing. One unexpected side effect is dancing, constant dancing, I can’t stop myself.

    Ronan wrote on January 3rd, 2012
    • I have the same problem. My co-workers already think I’m crazy, what with my odd footwear and strange eating habits. Now I’m standing up all day dancing around while they sensibly sit on their butts.

      Cave_Dad wrote on January 6th, 2012
  33. Okay after years of teaching and thus standing up all day, I took a good job that requires me to sit for 8 plus hours. To cope with the sitting I have gotten, a ball chair, have added a portable stepper, and now am looking for a way to lift my keyboard temporarily on and off during the day so I can add standing to counteract the effects of long periods of sitting. I looked at those foldable bed trays and am going to give one of those a shot.

    jill wrote on January 26th, 2012
  34. I don’t have an option to stand at work, and what makes it worse, is I’m working 12 hours shifts behind a computer, 5 days per week. Luckily it’s only until late spring. My solution is to just drink too much water! I paced off the distance to the washroom at 65 yards, and there’s a long way around I can take also. There is also a washroom 1 floor down. I’m not being overly excessive with the water, but enough to make sure I get off my butt at least once per hour, if not more..

    Hardy wrote on February 6th, 2012
  35. Love to STAND….great article informing people of the benefits of standing. We have a desk option for you to look at http://www.anderlyndesk.com and consider.
    As you stated “A standing workstation doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to work” and most importantly – work to improve your health!

    Carolyn wrote on March 17th, 2012
  36. I just started standing yesterday…so far, I love it. I have my keyboard and mouse up on a staples box…My work surface is adjustable, however…I plan to adjust it next week.

    Jennifer wrote on March 27th, 2012
  37. Hey Mark,

    Great post and awesome idea!

    I’ve just started doing the same thing after hearing about it in Eben Pagans Wake Up Productive training.

    I was just wondering, where did you buy your particular desk, as I like the look of it?

    Thanks

    Mo Mastafa wrote on April 13th, 2012
  38. At home I use a large chest of drawers as my standing desk. It is the tiniest bit too short, but by putting a large book under the keyboard, it’s perfect, plus I have all that extra storage.

    Louise wrote on May 2nd, 2012

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