How to Create Your Own Active Workstation

How-to-Build-Your-Own-WorkstationFive years ago, we were all about the standing workstation. Sitting kills, we said. It’s the new smoking. So we should do the opposite—stand all day long. Right? It turns out that standing all day isn’t much better. The real issue is lack of movement. When we sit or stand all day long in the same position, our body is learning to be immobile. Children can’t sit still because they haven’t had the natural human need to move beaten out of them yet. Adults never feel like moving because we’ve grown accustomed to never doing it. Since we spend at least a third of our lives at work, our workstation must enable and even encourage movement.

How do we do it? What do we need?

The Desk

You don’t have to stand all day. I don’t even recommend you stand in the same place all day. But you should have the option, so first on your list is a solid (or precarious, depending on your tolerance) standing workstation set-up.

IKEA has some good sit-stand desk options. They aren’t cheap, though.

A portable lectern works for laptop users, is fairly inexpensive, and it’s mobile. Roll that thing all over the place and adjust the height to suit your dimensions.

Adjustable height laptop stands let you turn any surface into a standup workstation. Also very affordable.

The Oristand is made of cardboard, folds flat when not in use, and can support up to 60 pounds. It’s $25 and has a two-tier system meant for people using laptops with wireless keyboards.

Back in the early days, we used to stack shipping boxes to create standing workstations in the Primal Nutrition office. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done.

The Seat

Wait, a seat? As in a surface you sit on? Yeah, sometimes you’re sick of standing. Sometimes you need a break. That’s okay. Just do it right.

Stool: Sometimes you’re sick of standing and sitting. A simple stool allows you to take a knee or perch for a quick change of perspective and to take a load off.

Active sitting chair: I’m a huge fan of Focal Upright and have the standing desk and Locus seat. You sort of lean against it, and you end up looking like you’re sitting on a pogo stick. You’re not really standing. But you’re not sitting either. You can’t completely relax and collapse into yourself.

Kneeling chair: Dedicated kneeling chairs allow extended kneeling.

Ground: It’s right down there and doesn’t cost a thing. I’ve written about the benefits of ground living before, how it forces you to switch positions and doesn’t let you stay comfortable for long. You can also squat, crouch, or kneel on the ground. Heck, you can lie down if you want. If you spend a considerable amount of time working on the floor, consider getting a low desk (or maybe a breakfast tray).

The Ground

Where we stand matters, too. Perfectly flat surfaces get boring and make our feet too comfortable. They make us lazy, promoting immobility. Why change how we stand or move at all when the ground is perfectly stable, consistent, and predictable? What you want to be doing is constantly switching stances and fidgeting. Luckily, there are floor mats and floor accessories that change the topography of our work place.

River rock mat: Have you ever walked along a river, barefoot, atop unruly river rocks of varying sizes? It’s incredible, like getting the best foot massage ever. Your brain works hard to keep balance and your feet take a (good) beating. Since very few offices have rivers running through them (wouldn’t that be amazing?), river rock mats allow us to stand on rocks from the safety of our office. If you’re not a huge fan of that one, you can also make your own.

Topo Mat: The Topo (as in topography) Mat employs terrain that forces fidgeting. Stand on it and you can’t help but shift your weight and move your feet around because you can’t really get comfortable for long. At last count, there were over 20 potential stances.

Foot wedge: A foot long portion from a 2 x 4, rolled up towel or yoga mat, can act as a wedge for lengthening and stretching your calves. Place the balls of your feet on the wedge while keeping your heels on the ground. If you feel that stretch, chances are you needed it. For a deeper stretch, get as much of your foot onto the wedge while keeping the heel touching the ground. Even if you’re sitting, a wedge under the foot can prevent heel cord shortening and tight calves.

Lacrosse ball: Stand on that thing, work your foot tendons and muscles and fascia, and focus on tender spots until they stop being so tender. Don’t spend the entire day on the ball, mind you. Just have it around for a quick pop on.


You have to move to be active. And while you can do air squats and take walking breaks and run the stairwells, activity tools can help even more.

Pullup bar: Humans should be brachiating—hanging, swinging, and supporting your own bodyweight through the shoulder. This keeps your shoulders loose and mobile and helps counter the chronic shoulder internal rotation and hunched posture of the laptop warrior. If you can’t handle your full weight, keep a foot on the ground. And hey, doing a few pullups every ten or fifteen minutes throughout the workday will lead to hundreds each week and huge strength gains and body composition improvements. They’re one of those movements that—provided you take sufficient rest, keep the reps per set low, and avoid failure—you can do over and over again and continue to see gains.

Olympic rings: Since you’ve got a pullup bar, attach some adjustable Olympic rings to it. Practice holds (L-sits are fun and great for abs), do dips, flip over and do rows.

Heavy object: Kettlebell, dumbbell, weight vest, sandbag, slosh tube, sledgehammer, landscaping rock. Keep something heavy on hand that you can play with for brief lifting sessions. If I had to choose, I’d say a kettle bell works best because it’s compact and versatile.

Slackline: This is my secret productivity weapon. Whenever I hit an impasse, whenever the work just isn’t flowing or there’s something at the tip of my fingers I can’t quite articulate, I’ll hop on the slackline for a few minutes to refresh my mind and body. And yeah, I know I’m lucky that my workstation is my house. I know most people won’t be stringing up a line in the breakroom (though you never know; I bet there’s an SF startup with a slackline set up right this instant). No room for a slackline? Just get balance beam (or bench). Want to spend even less money? Grab a 2×4 or 2×3 section from the hardware store and balance on it.

Movement reminder: This is an active workstation. You need to move. You want to move. You forget, though. Get a reminder. Free stand/move reminder apps abound for iOS and Android. Even a “Stand up!” or “Move!” post-it attached to your screen does the trick.

Scenery: It’d be awesome if everyone could work outside in nature. If you can’t swing an outdoor workspace, the next best thing is to bring nature to the office. Plants, large windows admitting natural light and views of the outside. Even images of nature scenes (waterfalls, jungles, sunsets, redwood forests, beaches, anything at all) have been shown to improve focus similarly to real nature. They’re not the real thing but they’re better than you’d think.

Don’t Just Sit There: Last year, I enlisted biomechanist/ergonomist/genius Katy Bowman to create an online multimedia program for office workers interested in staying healthy and mobile. It’s called Don’t Just Sit There, and it provides everything you need to be a healthy, active office worker. Included are the Don’t Just Sit There eBook (and audiobook), a shopping guide, instructional videos for proper ergonomic set up, stretches, mobility exercises, and body alignment, and a long discussion between Katy and me about active workspaces.

Okay. I think that’s about it. Now get out there and start plotting your own active workstations.

Tons of you are probably reading this from amazing workspaces. If so, tell us all about it down below. What’d I miss? How else can we optimize our offices for movement? Thanks for reading!


About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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51 thoughts on “How to Create Your Own Active Workstation”

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      1. Yes! The book is brilliant, really easy to follow and has made a huge difference to everyone I’ve sent it to who actually reads it!

      1. And don’t forget the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davies – that has been a personal life saver – IO literally cured back problems I had for years in the space of 3 weeks, with 100% self treatment – once I understood trigger points and where they were – I fired my chiropractor after reading the book, realizing I know knew much more the he did (or, what he would tell me that is), they make there business by keeping you “almost” cured.

        1. adding to this mini-thread: check out Jill Miller Yoga Tuneup, the magic of therapy balls with yoga (works with tennis balls also)

    1. I got Gokhale’s book, and the training helped for a while, but in the end movement was what made the difference. Even over mny standing desk too. I recommend any of Bowman’s works instead.

      1. The Gokhale book is beautiful and fun to read but it wasn’t until I coughed up the money for foundations training that I started to benefit. (For some people, reading the book was enough though.)

  1. I have been using a fitness ball as a chair for the last few months and, while it is not the equivalent of standing part of the day, it does allow me to stretch my back and legs, as well as use my core. It has definitely made a difference for me.

    1. Me, too! A fitness ball is great as I sit hear and roll in circles.

  2. Sitting kills? Actually, studies have shown sitting is no worse than standing up.

    1. Not being snarky, but could you link to, or at least identify these studies that show what you claim they show? It seems counterintuitive.

  3. Advocate for a redefining of the standard full time work week. Work four days and then leave the office for three days. I would wager productivity goes up and sickness goes down.

    Probably unrealistic, but at a certain point of dragging so many different things into your office to fool yourself that it isn’t your office…

    1. I think you’re absolutely right, Maz. I believe the whole world would be much better off with that type of weekly schedule in this digital day and age.

  4. Love Katy Bowman! And this is all pretty timely for me. I’ve been chasing after kids for the past 18 years, and haven’t done much sitting. Recently I’ve started blogging and am finding myself sitting much more than I am used to. So here’s what I do: sometimes I sit on the floor, and make sure that when I stand up I don’t use my knees or hands. Sometimes I stand and work with my laptop on the kitchen island. If I am working at happy, healthy and hot headquarters (aka Starbucks) I make sure to get up and move around from time to time. Love the river rock idea…might need one of those mats!

  5. So what about a treadmill desk? you didn’t mention that – is that a good option?

    1. Not for me, I did not pass the Hamster Test

      Hamster Test:
      Look in the mirror (better if alone)
      Do a hamster face and do munching jaw movements
      Look again and ask honestly to yourself: Do I look like a hamster
      If the answer is yes, good, you are a hamster. If not you are not

  6. An Airex balance pad is fantastic for standing on one foot. They’re not cheap though. I have at my desk a small slant board similar to what Eric Orton uses in the Cool Impossible. I also found a soft foam roller and cut two pieces of it. A two inch thick disc the diameter of the foam roller for standing on one foot (it is small enough that it forces you to stand on the ball of your foot and soft enough to make your foot muscles fire like crazy ) and a twelve inch cross section, a half dome. Lengthwise it is similar to standing on the balance pad, and sideways you can use it was a wedge to stretch calves and Achilles and do various short foot exercises. My shoes are always off when I’m at my desk. I keep a pair of slip on clogs from Clarks all winter long so I don’t have to fuss with my boots or tie laces to wander off and get coffee.

  7. I NEED MY TOPO!!!

    I am starting a campaign at work to get it, will report when successful 🙂 or not 🙁

  8. Wakka ding hoy! This post is awesome… so full of great ideas! I’ve had a standing desk for a couple years now, I think, and wouldn’t go back, but that Topo Mat seems like it’d be just the thing to switch things up and make my workstation even more awesome.

    Definitely a share-able post! Thanks!

  9. I really like my Varidesk because it’s extremely easy to move to any height you want, including flat if you want to sit. Mine is big enough for laptop, extra monitor, keyboard and mouse.

    I tried the laptop stand you provide an Amazon link for and found it really difficult to adjust.

  10. Thanks for this–I’ll definitely be sharing it with my clients! I love how you offer a range of options for each aspect of an active work station….and include ones that are inexpensive and simple to implement.

  11. The Topo mat is excellent. I got one about six months ago when the company was in its fundraising phase. I use it every day at work and it keeps me dancing around all day. Even better, I kick off my shoes and stand on it in stocking feet.

  12. I stand on a mini-trampoline with an adjustable height desk. Great for just standing and shifting your weight around and then occasionally breaking into a full bounce. Oil the springs to reduce squeak. Then move it out of the way for a while to switch to a balance ball, or a Hag-Balans Capisco saddle chair.

    A cube mate found a treadmill for 20 bucks at a garage sale and unscrewed the rails so he could get it under his desk. I think he gets his 10,000 steps in…

    Getting out for a walk every now and again is even better, but that requires cutting the mental chain to the “workspace”. Walking meetings help dissolve the guilt syndrome.

    1. Wow mini-trampoline, super cool, I am sold. Please can you provide info on a similar one in amazon? Thanks!

  13. I’ve been standing at my workstation since 1989. It’s specially rigged to facilitate upright body ergonomics. No back problems. No carpal tunnel issues. No eyestrain. I just turned 80 and I feel great.

  14. Thanks for your encouraging blog…I am 85 and need better balance, so am now practicing walking along a floorboard… Even that is tricky but I’m making progress! Perhaps I can graduate to a 2×4… I also was encouraged to download a reminder app to pry me off the couch. I have followed you for a couple of years and admire your well-written posts; I eat quite sanely now.

  15. Why is the picture showing someone with a typical hollow-back posture? I’ve had big problems with hollow-back. It gave me headaches way before I noticed something with my back.

    My physical therapist recommended placing a thin board on a chair. Not really comfortable but it helps.

  16. Love the look of the Focal Upright. I’m lucky because I teach yoga, which means I’m on the ground, and moving around. Being the resident Paleo cook, I’m also often moving around the kitchen. But I also spend a fair whack of time sitting at my pc. I sit at the kitchen table, which is awful when my inflammation has set into my lower back. So, we’ve moved the good, ergonomic chair into the kitchen, and this has made a huge difference. And the dog. With the schnauzer, I can’t sit in one place for too long. She makes me move, even it’s just to let her out, and let her back in again. The dog is the best.

  17. I’ve been using a drafting table as a standing desk. It offers a little more space and the angle can be adjusted in addition to the height.

    I have it pushed up to two tables, a long one (8 feet) and a short one (4 feet), with the short sitting on top of the the long, aligned to the left. On top of the short are my monitors and it’s where the drafting table is pushed up to with keyboard and mouse. The section of of the long table, that is not covered, has a chair pushed up for work I do when sitting down.

    It’s a fairly inexpensive setup, as is. If someone wanted to do it on the cheap they could use the ol’ door on top of a couple filing cabinets for the tables.

    1. Thanks, this is really good

      “drafting table as a standing desk”

  18. I cobbled together a standing workstation for my laptop with a cheap IKEA desk (that I already had), a cheap plastic IKEA footstool and a piece of particle board. My home office is also my workout room, so I’ve got weights and all my yoga stuff in here. I’ve read many a health/nutrition study while doing weighted squats at my desk. 🙂 I do have a pull-up bar for the doorway, but my door is closed more often than not so clients don’t have to hear my dog barking out the window at squirrels. But having the dog in here with me while I’m NOT meeting with clients is great, too, because more often than not he can talk me into going downstairs and outside with him for a bit of squirrel chasing between appointments.

  19. I’ve been using an empty office copy paper box (trimmed down about 1 inch) for my keyboard and a few thick books for my monitor. My mouse is on a metal box I scrounged up from the office… Whallah – standing work station. Two weeks in and I love it. My coworkers all think it’s a little strange though.

  20. I don’t allow myself the luxury of having everything within arm’s reach. I sit on a ball chair, as well. If I need a copy, I have to walk to the printer, if I need a chart, or form, or medical supply (I’m the school nurse), I have to get up to get it. I generally reach my goal for steps within a five hour time frame and have not had any issues with herniated disks or back pain in the last two years. I am going to try to move my PC and keyboard to the top of a bookcase for a standing option…
    I love all of your ideas and budget friendly options!

  21. I agree that it’s more important to move around, and I find that standing at my desk makes me more prone to do that, vs. fighting the inertia of sitting. When I do sit, I’ve been using a Balimo stool for the past 3 years or so and love it. The seat part is wobbly, so you must sit evenly and stay upright. They are not cheap, but very well made in the US from solid wood, and can be used for certain sports training as well (originally developed to teach horseback riders, I believe)

  22. I have a desk at work that I can both stand and sit. When I sit I use a stability ball and often when I stand I use that same ball under one leg while standing on the other. Then I switch. Its great.

  23. So, of COURSE after reading this, I had to see which San Francisco start ups have a slackline in the office. No news on that… but there *IS* a Twitter feed for where people are putting up slacklines in the city.

  24. Funny no ones talking about the money system that chains people to these slave stations.

  25. To limit the time stuck in my chair, I use the Pomodoro technique, a method to help one focus – I work at home so sometimes hard to stay focused. Basically you set a timer for 25 minutes and work in a focused manner for that period of time, then take a break. It helps me get up from the computer and take a short exercise or tidying the house break. I use focusatwill (focusing music) that you can set for 25 minutes and it really helps. It’s then a fun game to see how many ‘pomodoros’ you can do per day – makes work a little more interesting.

  26. Today the cat and I invented the heap. Mimics the virgins. If by virgin we mean old, and if by old we mean growth. And we do. A mossy tumbledown forest of virginal old growth, cat panthering through the middle. We use the mattresses on top of a very low wide strong table I also use as a sawhorse. I wanted to have my coffee not sitting, lying, or standing. I mean, it’s got a yolk in it, right? Started with a simple terrace as the queen folds, so I could do that thing we did as kids, reading a book? One hand holding our head up lying on the bed? I always like to move the mattresses around anyway, to wake me up, and there’s no furniture really. Most configurations of anything in the, hmm, let’s call it a house, I try to get a few cat tunnels going. Oh my friends, behold the heap. Bigger than terraced mattresses. Excellent for backbends. Also has very bourgeois sitting spaces for parents, in their nineties and old as virgins. The heap. Begins with coffee, doubles as a massage table, enables every form of Iyengar yoga but reinterprets the postural wisdom of the subcontinent as a slow soft tumble, works for writing poetry and is sensual and erotic without being committing, as the stark plane of a bed is. Am I right about this? What is this thing you are calling work?

  27. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for this post. I’m really loving Primal Endurance right now too. It’s actually helping me fine tune my current training program from Ben Greenfield for an Ironman 70.3 in the spring…
    Anyways, I’m a mental health counselor, and while it’s perfectly fine for me to stand, lean, or kneel when I’m doing my case notes, I pretty much have to sit down with clients when I’m doing therapy. What would you suggest I sit on for that, if it has to be a chair?
    Thanks so much!

  28. I use a balance disc and have an old skateboard deck that i put on top of it sometimes giving me two different balance options. I also use some kids’ fun slides that help me mimic inline skating or xc skate skiing. Tomorrow is definitely bring your kettlebell to work day. Great blog post.

  29. SpinaliS chairs for active sitting are great for strengthening core muscles and thus eliminating back pain. Great for people with back problems and those who want to make sure that they will never suffer from back pain. Check out their website