Interest in standing desks has been growing ever since “sitting is the new smoking” became a mantra among the health-conscious. Maybe you’ve been swept up in the wave, courtesy of an office remodel, or maybe you were persuaded by one of the many articles on the Internet and ordered one for yourself. Great!
But what if you’re not really sure you like it that much? It’s a little uncomfortable standing all day, or your legs get sore. But you can’t just tell your employer you want to switch back after they spent all that money, can you?
No worries. Switching to a standing desk requires adjusting more than just a piece of furniture; it’s an entirely different working style, involving shoes, flooring, computer placement, and frequent body movement. There are entire websites dedicated to making standing desks work for you, with names like deskhacks.com and standupkids.org. Once you’ve made these changes, you’ll understand why people like them so much.
To get some key, practical tips on how to enjoy your elevated desk, The FruitGuys Magazine spoke with one of the experts in the field. Professor Alan Hedge is the director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University.
A common mistake people with new stand-up desks make, he told us, is standing for too long (or, heaven forfend, all day). Maintaining a fixed standing position all day is almost as bad as sitting all day.
Hedge suggests that your workday be divided between standing and sitting, and involve a generous amount of small movements: “From research, [we’ve found that] the best regime is 20 minutes sitting, 8 minutes standing, and 2 minutes stretching or moving, repeated throughout the day.”
He details that program, with diagrams, on his laboratory’s website. Stretching/moving can consist of anything from going to get a glass of water in the break room, lifting a kettlebell you keep in the corner a few times, or walking to the printer. Just mix it up.
If that schedule sounds too complicated to remember, people have created phone apps to help remind you to stand up or take breaks. A 2014 study at the University of Cincinnati found that reminder apps reduced discomfort even in people at traditional sit-down desks, just by nudging them to get out of their chairs; they work even better in conjunction with sit-stand desks.
Ergo, I Am
Having a sit-to-stand desk can have health benefits, but, like any other desk, it can hurt you too—if it isn’t adjusted properly, it can throw your body out of alignment. Hedge notes that good computer posture is extremely important. Make sure your monitor is at eye level and your wrists are straight when you’re typing.
“Research shows that people [often] adjust their standing desk so it is too low, causing them to bend their hands and wrists down to the keyboard and mouse, and placing their screen too low, causing them to bend their neck forwards to look down,” Hedge says. “When a flat work surface is too low, the hands can be bent upwards into wrist extension, which can cause carpal tunnel syndrome.”
The U.S. Labor Department’s OSHA website has some very useful illustrated guidelines for computer working positions, both seated and standing. The key is having a neutral posture with your joints following a natural alignment.
If you find yourself shifting your weight, moving a foot forward or back, gently rocking back and forth or even dancing discreetly to music, that’s a good thing. “Frequent movement is valuable,” according to Hedge. The whole point of the standing desk is building small amounts of motion into your workday. It helps your blood circulate, keeps you alert, and burns off a few calories.
Beyond the Desk
Your standing desk may need some accessories to make it work perfectly for you. It's useful to have some kind of raised footrest to place one foot (and later the other) on. Many taverns and lounges have one for people standing at the bar. You’re at work longer than most bar patrons are at the bar, hopefully, so it’s even more important for you. There are devices you can buy, or a yoga block will work just fine.
And speaking of feet, Hedge notes that footwear is important. “Don’t stand for any length of time in high heels! Comfortable flat shoes/sneakers are best. If you need an orthotic, then use it.” (A good podiatrist, high-end footwear store, or even a shoe-insert kiosk can help you check to see if you would benefit from orthotics.)
Hedge is somewhat skeptical about the heavy ergonomic floor mats that many websites recommend, saying that they’re usually designed for industrial standing work, not office work. “If it’s a hard floor, then a mat of some type definitely can help. But you need to have enough space to have a mat, then move it for a chair (when sitting), then move the chair and replace it with the mat. If the mat is too heavy or bulky, all the lifting and moving could cause back problems.”
He suggests “carpet in combination with good shoes,” or a carpet mat that you can easily roll your chair on.
Above all, he says, you need to listen to your body. “If your legs are sore, then you should be sitting—that’s one sign of over-standing. If there’s any medical reason that could limit the use of a standing desk, then don’t use it.” Instead, he recommends using tools like chairs that provide movement from a seated position (like the CoreChair or the Swopper chair) or an under-desk pedal exerciser to get some leg movement.
It’s important not to replace one fixed position (sitting) with another (standing). Staying still is always a problem. Your elevated desk will improve your work experience immensely—if it becomes a reminder to keep moving around throughout your workday.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association; his work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.