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How to Create Your Own Active Workstation

Five years ago, we were all about the standing workstation [1]. Sitting kills [2], 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 [3]. 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 [4]. They aren’t cheap [5], though.

A portable lectern [6] 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 [7] let you turn any surface into a standup workstation. Also very affordable.

The Oristand [8] 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 [9]. 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 [10] allow extended kneeling.

Ground: It’s right down there and doesn’t cost a thing. I’ve written about the benefits of ground living [11] 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 [12] (or maybe a breakfast tray [13]).

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 [14] 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 [15].

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 [16].

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.

Movement

You have to move to be active. And while you can do air squats and take walking breaks and run the stairwells [17], 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 [18] 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 [19] 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 [20] (or bench [21]). 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 [22] and Android [23]. 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 [24]. If you can’t swing an outdoor workspace [25], 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 [26] to create an online multimedia program for office workers interested in staying healthy and mobile. It’s called Don’t Just Sit There [27], 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!

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