Thinking of Switching to a Standing Desk? Weigh the Pros and Cons First
How to avoid sitting disease
Most of us sit all day, and the news is out that spending so much time on our derrières is bad for our health, increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast and colon cancer and even shortening our life expectancy. Research suggests that exercising a few times week (or even more) isn't enough to offset that damage. “Sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little," says Marc Hamilton, PhD, a leading researcher on inactivity. Standing, on the other hand, has many benefits: toned muscles, improved posture, even a faster metabolism.
So is a standing desk the solution? Possibly — but learn a few facts before you go out and buy a standing set-up or ask your manager for one.
Why standing all day may not be the answer for everyone
Scientists who study ergonomics worry about the stress that standing for hours at a time can put on the body. April Chambers, PhD, research assistant professor in the department of bioengineering and laboratory director of the human movement and balance lab at the University of Pittsburgh, has spent her career studying workers who stand for long periods and is currently involved in standing desk research. Her work shows that excessive standing can be problematic.
“Workers who stand all day report mental and physical fatigue and decreased productivity. Standing causes varicose veins and the development of other insufficiencies of the cardiovascular system that put you at higher risk of stroke,” she explains. “Both sitting and standing are static positions. Engaging in either one in excess harms your health in different ways.”
One study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, found that the risk of varicose veins increased with the amount of time spent standing at work.
Chambers believes the idea of standing desks is ahead of the research. “Standing desks really haven’t been studied sufficiently. It reminds me of when treadmill desks first appeared on the market. Everyone had to have one before they realized it’s difficult to focus when your head is bobbing on a treadmill.” Data show the use of these desks tends to plummet after about a month.
The trick: Don't just stand there — move
Moving your body periodically is important whether you sit or stand at work, says Chambers. To encourage desk workers to move more throughout the workday, Chambers says we need regular reminders. “I set a reminder on my phone to get up and move around at least once an hour,” she says. “Depending on your workplace, there may be other cues you can use to help you get into the habit of standing more. For example, standing whenever you speak on the phone.”
There are also free apps that remind you to stand up. Some even provide stretches to aid in preventing repetitive strain injuries. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) recommends Break Reminder, Move a Bit and Stand Up!
If you want to try a standing desk, ease into it gradually. “Some people have bodies that can acclimate to standing all day, but I don’t recommend changing your primary position overnight,” she says. “A body that’s accustomed to sitting all day needs gradual conditioning to safely adjust to more standing.”
Transition from sitting to standing gradually over a matter of weeks and use your body as your guide. Chambers suggests starting with 20 to 30 minutes of standing per hour (10 minutes for an older person). “There’s no magic formula. When you start feeling discomfort, take a seat.”
Do your research on the desk you're considering before you buy. “Being able to easily make adjustments [from sitting to standing and vice versa] and customize other features based on an individual’s size may better suit the person’s needs,” Chambers says. “A belt with one hole will only fit a handful of people.”
Wearing supportive shoes is also important to keep your spine properly aligned. “When you stand up, your shoes become your ‘chair’. All the forces go there,” says Chambers, who advises women not to wear heels if they are using a standing desk. “A hard floor and shoes without any cushioning is a very bad combination.”
That’s why anti-fatigue mats make a good investment for standing desk users. They are used with great success in assembly lines, and many chefs swear by them.
Related: How to Set Up a Feel-Good Office