Standing on the Job: Do Standing Desks Really Help?

May 14, 2014

“KostaWe’re living in a digital age, with many jobs and activities involving computers. For those who work long hours in front of computers, the effects can be negative and potentially serious.

The biggest threat isn’t from the computer itself - it’s from the chairs we slump into each morning with a cup of coffee, and stay in until our bladders are full or our coffee mugs empty.

Despite the availability of high-tech chairs touting lumbar support and breathable mesh backs, the mere act of sitting for hours on end has the potential to cause problems such as muscle degeneration, strained muscles in the neck and back, and even organ damage.

Even for those leading an otherwise active lifestyle outside of the office, researchers are beginning to doubt it is enough to counteract the negative effects of sedentary workplace practices.

Standing On The Job

One solution is the standing desk, a setup where folks elevate their monitor(s), mouse and keyboard and stand to work. Studies say standing desks can help burn 40 percent more calories than sitting. Several corporations have adopted the practice, such as Facebook and Google.

While it is becoming a more mainstream and accepted way to work, the idea itself is not new, with Ben Franklin and Winston Churchill as early adopters of the practice.

Undoubtedly, standing while working comes with its own set of risks as well. For those standing eight-to-10 hours a day, the risk for varicose veins and constricted arteries increases.

Moderation Is Key

It's fair to say that both standing and sitting desks have their own pros and cons; however, the important thing to note here is, whether at a standing or sitting desk, moving at least once an hour can alleviate negative problems associated with working at an office desk.

But let's step back and be real here. Setting aside time during a busy workday full of deadlines and emails can be challenging. How can we find a middle ground that nurtures well-being?

For DesignHammer developers Kosta Harlan and Jay Roberts, the solution is a standing desk, which encourages movement throughout the day since they are already on their feet.

What's It Like To Stand All Day?

“Jay

I stood up with Jay and Kosta to chat about their standing desks and how they’ve made it work to improve their well-being in the workplace. Both share an office space with standing desk setups.

When did you first hear about standing desks? What were your initial thoughts about the setup?

Jay: I read a mix of blog posts and listened to several podcasts of different people who use them. I also read Gina Trapani’s post, she’s pretty well-known for being an early adopter and advocate of the practice.

Kosta: Jay did a trial run with his laptop stacked on top of books. It wasn’t too effective though, was it Jay? I think I remember he said it strained his neck. He did it for one week, and realized he’d need an actual standing desk, not a pile of books.

What problems were you experiencing when sitting all day?

Jay: Lower back, neck and wrist pain. The wrist pain was getting especially bad. It got to a point where I was afraid I’d need surgery; I was experiencing shooting pain from my wrist through my arm.

Kosta: I was having neck, shoulder, elbow and wrist pain.

What inspired you to create your own standing desk? When did you build it?

Jay: Kosta created his desk first. I did the pilot run, then returned to sitting. It took me awhile to return to standing, but eventually I followed Kosta’s lead.

Kosta: My then-current desk wasn’t a good fit (Jay chimes in, “Kosta’s a tall dude”), and I felt tired. I built a desk for work first, then one for my home office. I’ve worked in a standing setup for about a year now. My motivation is having more energy, experiencing less muscle/nerve pain, and so far it has worked out for me. Honestly, sitting at a desk all day sucks. I’ve worked at jobs where I stood all day and all I wanted to do was sit. I mean, it definitely wasn’t ergonomic standing, so of course it wasn’t comfortable.

Jay: For me, seeing Kosta’s success made me want to go forward with it. I was concerned about the health risks (clots, atrophy) from sitting all day. Yes, you can stand and take breaks during the day, but when you’re working, you’re working. Sometimes the break that you should take to move around is easily not the break you should be taking to get a task done. Also, having both of us stand is a good dynamic, versus only one person standing and the other sitting.

Has working at a standing desk corrected the problems you were experiencing at a sitting desk?

Kosta: The shooting pain through wrist/arm no longer occurs.

Jay: Yeah, same here.

Kosta: I also made changes to my equipment to improve ergonomics. I now use a trackpad instead of a mouse, which reduces the isolated movement of the wrist.

Standing can cause problems as well. How did you customize your standing desk to fit your needs?

Jay: The biggest thing is foot pain/soreness. Sometimes, the back-stabilizing muscles are sore. But the discomfort is not nearly as bad as before. Rather, the soreness feels more like my muscle has been used, not strained. An important thing to do to reduce problems associated with standing is to take measurements to best fit the desk to your body - we did it to make sure the monitor height, keyboard height, and so on were optimal for each of us. If not, it would likely cause other problems for us. But other than measuring for my height, I haven’t customized my desk.

Kosta: I use a floor pad and wear Crocs when at my desk. I also have a stool to prop one leg up to help shift weight between legs throughout the day. I think it’s a good practice to do... I think a lot of problems come down to being in one spot - sitting or standing - without moving all day. It isn’t healthy.

Jay: I agree, when we’re sitting for eight hours a day for a chunk of our life, being conscious of what it does to us physically is important.

Jay at his standing desk

What are the downfalls of a standing desk?

Kosta: If you’re sick or recovering, or have a physical injury, it’s difficult. For me, standing was difficult and at times painful as I was recovering from an injury, even though it was recommended that I stood. I was able to sit when I experienced discomfort.

How does working at a standing desk affect your workflow, if at all? Is it recognizably different from your workflow at a sitting desk?

Jay: I feel more energetic, especially in mornings. Starting off standing with a cup of coffee… it helps me feel more ready to get stuff done.

Kosta: The biggest change is more energy. It’s easier to step away from the computer to think, and to move. It encourages movement because I’m already on feet.

Jay: I also drink more water now. You don’t have that barrier of sitting and having to “get up” to do something.

Kosta: Yeah, it’s easier to engage and disengage.

Jay: With other staff, our stand up meetings (quick meetings scheduled to make sure projects are moving forward) are actually conducted standing up. They tend to move quicker. Heh, plus we’re pretty sure everyone is jealous of our desks.

Do you have any tips or advice? Is there something that should absolutely be done, or absolutely avoided?

Create a Flexible Standing Desk

Jay: We built upon our existing office desks, which allows flexibility to convert back to the traditional sitting desk. Helpful when needed to accommodate injuries.

Kosta: Jay used prefabricated parts from Ikea, so it was cheaper to assemble desk. If people want to build their own freestanding desk, which is the approach I took, I recommend consulting with a woodworker for how to make it stable.

Transition Slowly to a Standing Desk

Kosta: For people just doing to try it out, I recommend using prefabricated pieces to reduce money and time spent on materials and assembly.

I also recommend for those wanting to try it, limit to standing 2-3 days a week, then increasing time spent standing. It can be challenging for folks who have sat for years to make a drastic change and transition immediately to standing. Easing into it helps make it a permanent transition.

For other folks interested in learning more and creating their own standing desk, what resources would you recommend?

Jay referenced this guide for tips: http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/the-best-standing-desks/

Jay built a double version of this: http://iamnotaprogrammer.com/Ikea-Standing-desk-for-22-dollars.html

Chesley found this article on standing desks and productivity helpful and interesting: http://readwrite.com/2013/09/26/standing-desks-productivity#awesm=~oD2qQ...

I'm interested to hear from others: What are your thoughts on the research? Have you transitioned to a standing desk? What modifications were made to customize for your needs?


Comments

I'm glad to hear that you are happy with a standing desk. I'm converting my son's old room into a home office and I was thinking about buying a standing desk. I hope I benefit from it as much as you have.

Susan Hirst