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A Standing Desk Might Not (Necessarily) Save Your Life

By Kerry Butters

A couple of years ago I found myself unable to work effectively, with constant screaming headaches and stiff necks. It turned out this was due to my working at an inappropriate workspace — my dining table and a terrible chair — with a screen that was too low. Fortunately, I rarely have these issues anymore after I found out what was causing it and took action.

Many people who work at a desk all day will, at some point, have a similar story, suffering with some kind of problem due to the way that they have their workspace set up. Most of the time they’ll notice the issue and work to fix it. But if they’re still spending most of their time sitting, their long-term health may still be at risk.

We’re leading much more sedentary lives than we have before thanks to the march of technology, but it seems all this sitting isn’t very good for us.

Some experts believe too much sitting can cause a myriad of health issues that could lead to an early death. The worst thing? Exercise outside of office hours and leading a relatively active lifestyle doesn’t offset this. In the US, sitting down for long periods of time has now been formally recognised as a health risk. According to an article on Business Insider, citing a study found in the Archives of Internal Medicine:

[T]he risk of premature death grows 15 percent for those who sit eight hours a day, and 40 percent for those who sit 11 hours a day, compared with those who sit for just four hours.

So for those of us who spend hours and hours at a desk all day, every day, the risk is real and it’s serious.

Reducing the Sedentary Lifestyle

While it’s easy to think that a good stint in the gym is all that’s necessary to offset all of the time spent sat on our butts, research has shown that it’s not enough. In order to reduce the increased risk of premature death, heart problems, obesity, diabetes and muscular issues, the only answer is to sit less. It seems the answer to that is in the standing desk.

In a bid to see just how much of a difference regular standing can make to your health, Dan Kois decided to spend a whole month doing as much as possible. His account of the month is interesting as it showed just what a struggle standing all day, every day is.

However, the upshot of it was that Dan found himself at the end of it to be five pounds lighter, with stronger leg muscles, and significantly more productive than when he had been sitting. But he found it a struggle, and the article points out that standing all of the time is as bad for you as sitting all the time.

It’s about finding a happy balance. Unfortunately, experts have yet to agree on exactly what that balance is.

Enter the Standing Desk

The standing desk has become popular in recent years as the effects of an overly sedentary lifestyle have become better known. But there’s little in the way of proof that using a standing desk does actually help. In fact, according to Marc Hamilton, a professor of inactivity physiology at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, there’s no evidence to link standing desks with improved health.

It’s a creative idea, but it’s not been scientifically proven. As of now, there’s really no research to show they do any good.

He goes on to say he suspects standing desks supply borderline benefits at best, and that “sitting for too long is not the same as exercising too little”. Standing for long periods also carries its own health risks. Since the fad for standing desks emerged a couple of years ago, there have been numerous online experiments such as the one by Dan above and all of them bemoan aching feet, sore calf muscles.

While they acknowledge standing does help energize them, some have had problems, like Sydney Trent of the Washington Post, who eventually visited her doctor after suffering numbness in her toes and a tingling, warm sensation in her calves.

The doctor’s conclusion: I was standing too much at work. Those uncomfortable sensations were probably a result of hyperextending my knee, which could put too much pressure on the fibular nerve, a branch of the sciatic nerve, which starts behind the knee and runs alongside the fibula, or calf bone. Ironically, this can also occur when you cross your legs a lot while sitting.

When you stand all day, it’s important you check your posture often and move around as much as possible. Standing desks encourage you to stand still in one spot, so unless you make a concerted effort to move around, it’s unlikely they’re doing a great deal of good. There are plenty of workers around the world that are on their feet all the time. For these people, the risk of varicose veins and hardening of the arteries is dramatically increased.

Walking is Key

Experts agree that standing desks offer some benefits, but there’s no evidence beyond the anecdotal to suggest they can combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. According to author and explorer Dan Buettner, the key to a healthy lifestyle is “regular, low-intensity physical activity that’s part of (your) life routines.” He studied the healthiest communities around the globe and found that above all, walking is the answer for those looking to lead a long and healthy life.

This is backed up by the medical community. Common sense tells us that rather than simply sitting or standing at a desk all day, getting away from the desk and mixing it up could be the best thing you can do.

Tips for Getting Healthier

With this in mind, there are a few things you can do to help free yourself from the shackles of a sedentary life — this list does include standing desks. These can be pricey (although you can think about it as an investment into your future) so if you can’t afford it, then you can make your own, but it’s vital that you check your posture for both standing and sitting to find out what’s optimal for you.

A Standing Desk. Source: Wired.com

Source: Wired.com

As well as checking your sitting and standing posture, you should also try to work the following into your daily routine:

  • Take a regular walk around the office.
  • Alternate sitting and standing, your body should dictate when you do each.
  • Use a gel mat for standing on, if you find your feet ache.
  • Use a separate keyboard and mouse if you use a laptop as they are typically not good for getting the correct posture and can cause neck and shoulder problems.
  • When standing, do light exercise such as shifting your weight from one foot to another, or simple yoga movements.
  • Drink more water. Not only will you need to walk to the restroom more often, but you’ll be better able to concentrate when completely hydrated.
  • Start slowly. Don’t dive into standing all day, gradually increase the amount you stand.

There’s a serious lack of research out there when it comes to how long you should stand for, so I’d suggest a 50/50 approach that incorporates plenty of movement. Think about how you can make your daily tasks include more of it.

Conclusion

When it comes down to it, a standing desk won’t save your life if you have a largely sedentary lifestyle. Both prolonged sitting and standing can have an adverse affect on your health and the key is to incorporate movement and walking into your daily routine. These could make a huge difference to your health, life and productivity, so what will save your life is making adjustments to help you to move around more during the day and evening.

So instead of getting home and slumping in front of TV after a hard day’s work, perhaps it would be a better idea to get out of the house and go for a gentle stroll?

How do you avoid suffering from the effects of a sedentary lifestyle? Have you tried a standing desk?

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  • http://www.bitfalls.com/ Bruno Skvorc

    I tried a standing desk, but humans weren’t meant to stand in one place any more than they were meant to sit all day. Both approaches hurt your back badly, and you have a much harder time self-controlling your posture when just standing in place.

    The solution is a treadmill desk. I’ve been using one for the past year, and it’s helped me lose a *lot* of weight in the first 4 months – I’ve lost all kinds of up-to-that-point regularly occurring pains, including headaches and lower back pain, and my posture autocorrected.

    In order to force myself to keep doing it, I made a goal of walking 4000km in one year. I got a good bit past half way, but due to some life circumstances I wasn’t able to follow through, due to having been away from the treadmill through the entire summer almost. I’ll be reviving the effort in a different form come 2015, and you can see how I progressed in what I did manage to do at http://4kk.me. If anyone wants to join in on the effort, let me know. A small group has already begun to form, preparing for January.

    • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

      Well done on your efforts even if you didn’t make the 4K. A treadmill desk sounds like a great option, I could certainly do with the exercise (although I tend to avoid anything that makes me lose weight as I’m naturally very slim) but how on earth do you manage to type and walk at the same time? Isn’t it distracting when you’re writing?

      • http://www.bitfalls.com/ Bruno Skvorc

        Not at all. You rest your palms on the same shelf which hosts the keyboard, which means you’re moving with the treadmill’s vibrations, thus keeping in sync. All it takes is a couple of days to get used to it. I’ve gotten to the point where I can easily play shooters (high precision mouse maneuvers) without so much as a twitch.

        If you’re concerned about too much weight loss, just reduce the speed and incline. For example, to lose weight, I walk/work at 4-5km/h at a high incline. You can reduce speed to a very light stroll (2km/h) and no incline (fewer calories burned), which will give you the best of both worlds – moving, but just enough to keep your bones and muscles healthy, while maintaining energy levels.

        • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

          Certainly sounds great then, will check out reviews and pricing, thanks Bruno.

          • http://www.bitfalls.com/ Bruno Skvorc

            I built my first treadmill desk for $500 – the total cost of a used treadmill.

          • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

            Not sure my DIY skills run to creating my own Bruno :)

          • http://www.bitfalls.com/ Bruno Skvorc

            The instructions are literally:

            1. Buy treadmill
            2. Put plank over handles.

          • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

            Hahaha – OK!

        • Sp4cecat

          For a generation that types on their smart phone while walking down (and navigating) a crowded street, you’d think this would be an obvious step :)

    • Sp4cecat

      Did you write an article about this Bruno, or was it someone else?

      Regardless, any pointers on what’s good in the treadmill desk line? DIY or something off the shelf?

      • http://www.bitfalls.com/ Bruno Skvorc

        I wrote a blog on it, but no article here. You can find everything I wrote about treadmill desks at http://4kk.me

  • M S i N Lund

    How about sitting on a big ball?
    How does that compare to normal sitting, or standing?

    • http://www.bitfalls.com/ Bruno Skvorc

      It helps your posture a bit, due to having to maintain balance implicitly with muscles rather than being fused with a chair, but it won’t do much else. You’ll still expose yourself to a world of trouble in later years if you do any significant amount of sitting on a daily basis.

    • LouisLazaris
  • http://www.zacksdomain.com/ Zack Wallace

    I don’t agree with the quote about standing being “not scientifically proven”. Research has been pouring out for the last few years, though I don’t have a list at the ready, I’ve had a constant flow of information from health podcasts, blogs and RSS feeds I pay attention to.
    Almost everybody who promotes standing desks make a point to mention that you need to change posture often. Stand on one leg and switch, use a bipod chair or something to lean on, alternate sitting on a tall seat, cross legs, etc etc.

    I have a rather expensive desk which happens to have hutches so I cannot experiment with standing desk or treadmill but it would be interesting. Instead I have to make a point to walk, do squats and stretches through the day, run up and down stairs a few times etc.

    • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

      Sounds like you’re doing what you can then Zack for the time being. As for the quote, well he is a reputable source and I think the point he’s trying to make is that standing all day is not good for you either so it’s necessary to think beyond *just* a standing desk. I must say that the treadmill desk mentioned by Bruno above sounds like a much better idea :)

  • http://dears.tumblr.com/ Emily Spence Place

    One of the most important things you can do for you standing posture is soften your knees. If you stand with locked knees your pelvis tilts and you over-exaggerate your lumbar curve.

  • http://www.betobeto.com/ Beto

    I have around 4 years of experience with standing desks in my own home office. I started with a fixed model and then shifted to a Geekdesk, an adjustable sit-stand workstation. Here’s what I have found on my own experience:
    – Back pains are gone, mid-afternoon slump is gone, feel much better overall.
    – It is recommended to sit and stand through the day at regular intervals.
    – Those kitchen gel mats are foot savers. I always work on my socks or barefoot.
    – It is not, however, a substitute for exercising regularly like anyone should. Desk time and exercise time must still be complimented for a great balance.

    I’m also aware of the treadmill desk fashion, but since my job implies a lot of drawing in the computer, pretending to walk and draw at the same time sounds more than a little awkward.

  • Thom Parkin

    I have been working (11 hours a day) in a standing position for over two years now.
    Not at a fancy specialized desk but simply by adjusting the modular cubicle desktop I am provided in my workplace.
    I will attest to many benefits I have seen from this change in lifestyle
    – Much more alert and better concentration
    – It does force me to walk (around the building) more often. In the past I would rarely take a break at all
    – It is true that I drink more; remain better hydrated *and* make more frequent trips to the restroom. These are both good things
    – My balance is incredible. I even dress entirely in a standing position, to include putting on socks and shoes (Stand on one leg,lift the other foot to about the knee and bend down to put on the sock/shoe). I have found few peers who can do that without support!

    Standing on a Gel mat makes a big difference. My original motivation for this was NOT based on any research or revelation (many of which have been appearing since I began) but due to the fact that I commute for TWO-HOURS each way every day. I thought that sitting for FOUR HOURS in the car and then for ELEVEN HOURS in the office was simply bad.

    Now, when I am home (and my primary hobby involves the computer) I find it more comfortable to stand than sit.

    I am not as absolute as Dan Kois in that article; I sit for meals and to play board games. But I am also not doing it as a stunt to write an article or prove a point.
    It has become a major change in my lifestyle.

    • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

      Good to hear that it’s had a positive effect Thom. I think the most useful thing to come out of looking at standing vs sitting is the discussion and real life scenarios.

  • http://www.markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    I just got back from the Web Summit in Dublin where I saw a desk that works by using software that learns your habits and adjusts as necessary. It gives you a little nudge by providing a soft up-down movement when you’ve been in one position for too long and its position is also adjusted via the software. I’m not actually doing it as must justice as it deserves here as it looked great when the guy demoed it for me – more information to follow if anyone’s interested?

  • http://www.sblmedia.co.uk/ Susan Bromwich

    I found your article first when I was researching standing desks. I’ve now been using my variable height desk for around a month and it has had a huge impact for me.

    My regular routine means I’m sitting working for 8-10 hours a day with 1 or 2 breaks. I have always invested in good quality adjustable desks/chairs/monitor stands etc. so I had everything set up to be as comfortable as possible but back pain and lethargy were still a big issue.

    One month in and my back pain has gone completely. Just like Thom my concentration is higher, productivity is better and the p.m. slump is a thing of the past. I alternate between sitting and standing and I can adjust the height of the desk to suit the task – if I’m reading paperwork and standing the desk is higher than pc work for example.

    I love the idea of a gym ball – I might add that to the mix!

  • Joan

    Yes! This article is making an important distinction – you get the standing desk benefits from making more small movements throughout the day, not from standing like a statue with your knees hyperextended. Ow. It’s called NEAT or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17sitting-t.html?_r=0

    I use the standing desk that we make and pull up and push away a stool constantly throughout the day. Also like grabbing my ankle and doing stretches when I’m reading:

    erectordesk.com/products/standing-desk

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