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. 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?


    Mo Mastafa wrote on April 13th, 2012
  2. 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
  3. At this website you can see how to convert your existing workstation to standing configuration. You can lift your desk or put modular units on top of your cubicle.

    Marc Smith wrote on May 29th, 2012
  4. You can actually modify your existing workstation to standing configuration, without having to bring in something new. You can lift your desk up, or put modular units on top of your fixed cubicle.

    Marc Smith wrote on May 29th, 2012
  5. Putting a timer on, then rising when it dings works great. Having a rebounder close by to jump on energizes me while stimulating the lymphatic system. Sipping water between these intervals works well too.

    Jeff Haebig wrote on June 5th, 2012
  6. What works for me is a standing height desk and a high saddle stool. My desk surface is at 43″ (I’m 5′ 10″) and my stool sets at 32″ high.

    Perfect combo. A saddle stabilizes your spine and activates your abs so you don’t need a back. I stand when I want, sit comfortably when I want, and anything in between with a high desk and stool. I’m constantly shifting and I don’t need to think to do it, it just happens.

    Mark wrote on June 7th, 2012
  7. From the other side of the pond here…

    I know this post was put up ages ago but here’s an article I spotted today on how sitting could be shortening our lives.

    Another case for standing to work I think.


    Sarah wrote on July 10th, 2012
  8. I created a standing desk at my workplace last week and love it. My feet have been sore (particularly my heels), but it may be because I am used to wearing heels and at my standing desk I am usually barefoot. I just bought an ergonomic mat, which should help.
    The best part is my neck and shoulder pain have virtually disappeared! I have better range of motion in my neck than I have in ages.
    I rarely stand still. I find I do plies, lunges, leg raises, etc. while I work.
    I love no longer feeling like a shmushed marshmallow with my shoulders bent forward and my neck cocked out.

    Cindy Webb wrote on July 11th, 2012
  9. I just converted to stand up mode at work a couple of days ago as part of my introduction to the PB. Of course, it does not help that I am fighting years of poor desk posture.
    It is taking some getting used to.
    I also realize that this issue is only part of the problem after working on all of the mobility drills.

    The Lance Armstrong Foundation has some great links on proper neck posture that compliment this article.

    I can’t believe how interrelated all of these joints are.

    So I am going to get the joint working and then onto the exercise program.

    Jiggy-Z wrote on August 16th, 2012
  10. Sarah wrote on September 3rd, 2012
  11. This is the standing workstation I bought recently for work. It’s a great addition to my work space and has definitely decreased my back pain and leg pain while working on a computer. I would recommend it to anyone.

    Rebecca wrote on September 13th, 2012
  12. I made my own stand-up desk modification using parts from IKEA. It cost me about $25 and I LOVE it!! It just takes a “LACK” table, two “VIKTOR” brackets and a shelf of your choice. I went with “EKBY LAIVA” because I have a small keyboard.
    Just google “IKEA stand up desk” and you can see how to do it on a bunch of different blogs.

    AustinGirl wrote on November 6th, 2012
  13. I have a variable height desk at work, one you can tune via a couple of buttons. I mostly use it at a high setting so I can stand. Been doing that for years.

    James wrote on November 6th, 2012
  14. I have been the “stand-up teacher” at my school for about 9 months. Due to degenerative disc disease and an extruded disc that had me in the hospital for two days last winter, I don’t sit much. My neurosurgeon wrote me a prescrition for the stand up station and I have since created my own, monitor and keyboards on boxes…perfect fit! Looks pretty trashy, but it works. You just have to find the perfect boxes. Now, they have ordered the “Cadillac model” which has seperate surfaces for the monitor and keyboard. It also has room for an open file, duh, the first one only had space for my laptop. The standing,walking,squatting(lowest file drawer access) has strengthened my, legs, core and back and I swear I am more alert these days.

    Margie wrote on December 2nd, 2012
  15. People keep suggesting that I get a thick floor mat/pad like cashiers and people in warehouses have when they stand in one place. Is that needed? Is it even a good idea?

    Background: I have put together a standing desk at work. I am at reception so it had to look at least a little bit presentable. Office mates have been very inquisitive and receptive. (I am not the first one at this office to have a standing desk.) I have had a pretty good transition so far. My lower back is talking but after 3 days I am mostly adjusted and happy with the setup.

    Laura M. wrote on December 7th, 2012
  16. Mark,
    Thanks for the post! These are very good reasons for standing up at work, but what about taking a break? Studies show that if you stand TOO much you are more likely to develop varicose veins, leg cramps, and even (gross) hemmeroids. You need to move between sitting and standing, which can be hard at work. Personally, I use an adjustable height desk from NextDesk in the office and (so excited about this!) soon will use their new, smaller version, the “Solo” at home. Check it out:
    I think these products, or adjustable height desks in general, are good for balancing standing and sitting. Of course these days I stand a lot more than sit, but I do take short “sitting breaks” when my legs start to fatigue.
    Thanks again for the post. Hope this is helpful!

    Natalie wrote on December 12th, 2012
    • I’ve been standing at work, with periodic sitting “breaks”, for a bit over 2 years. While I think it is great, I hear what Natalie is saying and for me, a Tread Desk would be the next step in “evolution.” Standing beasts sitting and walking beats standing. I have some work-culture inhibitions though, so I’m not sure when/if that’ll happen.

      Eddie wrote on December 12th, 2012
  17. I can’t see the pictures on the $20 DIY setup blog post.

    Could you explain what was done? What to buy?

    John wrote on December 13th, 2012
  18. Here’s some sample pictures of workstations that have been raised, not replaced to obtain standing configuration

    Marc Smith wrote on December 27th, 2012
  19. Hey Mark,
    Thanks for the post! Lucky for me, I didn’t have to introduce the idea of a standing desk to my boss, because that’s actually how I got introduced to the idea! I started working at a new job about 5 months ago, and lo and behold, there was an adjustable height desk already there, waiting for me.
    It was the first I’d thought of using something like this, and after just about a week I was in love. I even made a little makeshift one for my home when I’m working there.
    But now I’m looking at buying a smaller version of what I use at work for my house. See, I use a NextDesk adjustable height desk and they’ve just released a new, smaller version for smaller spaces. It is pretty cool.
    If you’d like to check it out for yourself, their site is
    Let me know what you think, and thanks again for the post.

    Natalie wrote on January 8th, 2013
  20. I rigged up a temporary workstation yesterday. So far, so good! But, I have a question: I keep locking my knees. Will that become less of a habit as my legs get stronger? Right now it is a bit of a distraction!

    Cate Mattison wrote on January 24th, 2013
  21. I have been having serious issues with my legs lately and this may just be the problem. I sit for at least 7 hours a day at work, I noticed throughout the day when I need to get up and move around my legs hurt so bad I have to stand still for a minute before they even work properly. I feel like I need to go to the doctor and make sure there isn’t a more serious issue. I would love to be able to stand with the option to sit while at work all day. When I worked at a hotel I stood all day and the only issue I had was achy feet but I chaulk that up to standing on carpeted (Cement underneath) floors. Wish me luck with my doctors visit. LOL

    Michele Langley wrote on January 30th, 2013
  22. Hello All You Up-Standing Folks:

    I have some toys/props at my feet. Wobble board, Pro-Stretch calf stretcher, wooden yoga-block. I’m adding one to the mix. 2 large size furniture sliders. Sort a “poor man’s treadmill desk.” Yeah, I could just shuffle, rock to & fro’ or alternate foot lifting, but this slide seems like a fun thing to try. Just sharing in case it might help one of you. All the best, Eddie

    Eddie wrote on March 15th, 2013

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