The Benefits of Using a Standing Desk

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SITTING AT HIS DESK FOR up to eight hours a day was taking a toll on Evan Donahue. At the end of some work days, Donahue would feel stiffness in his back and joints. Sometimes, his hips would crack.

This didn’t seem right to Donahue, who works for an executive search firm in Troy, Michigan. He was only in his mid-20s and physically active. For about a year, he jerry-built a crude standing desk by slipping cardboard boxes beneath his keyboard.

His approach had at least one major flaw: The position of his computer monitor was fixed. “I’d end up looking at the screen at an odd angle (while standing),” Donahue says.

Fortunately, about three years ago, James Philip, the founder and chief executive officer of the firm Donahue works for, stepped in. Philip arranged for Donahue to get a legitimate standing desk that allowed him to set the locations of his keyboard and his computer screen. It’s also outfitted with a wireless headset, which lets him take short walks while conducting calls that don’t require him to be in front of his computer.

Donahue says the work station has boosted his health significantly.

“It’s great,” Donahue says. “I go back and forth between standing and sitting throughout the day. I listen to my body. If I’ve been standing for an hour and my feet are sore, I’ll go back to sitting.” In a typical work day, Donahue estimates he probably stands and sits an equal amount of time on the job.

Donahue has plenty of company among people across the country who are spending more time on their feet while working. According to a 2019 survey out of the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional human resources membership association based in Alexandria, Virginia, standing desks are the fastest growing benefits trend. In 2013, just 13% of employers provided or subsidised standing desks; 44% did so by 2017. The survey, conducted in April, showed that 60% of employers now provide or subsidise standing desks for their employees.

It’s easy to see why. Research suggests that using a standing desk can encourage workers to spend less time sitting. People who sit with poor posture put themselves at risk for a raft of health problems, including misalignment of the spine and knees, which can increase stress on the knees; exacerbation of arthritis; poor circulation; fatigue; jaw pain; headaches; sexual function issues and shoulder and back pain.

Many people tend to slouch when sitting at a desk, says Dr. Kaliq Chang, a pain management physician based in West Orange, New Jersey, with the Atlantic Spine Center. Slouching while sitting puts stress on the lower back, he says.

Using a standing desk encourages people to spend less time sitting and more time standing, according to a meta-analysis of 53 studies published in the journal Applied Ergonomics in February 2019. What’s more, a 2016 study found that call center employees with sit-stand desks were almost 50% more productive than their colleagues who sat in the office.

In addition, using a standing desk may help with weight maintenance, research published in the journal Occupational Medicine in March 2017 suggests. Using a sit-stand desk “provides an opportunity to increase energy expenditure throughout the working day,” according to the journal. “Though modest, accumulation of this small benefit over time could be an important part of the public health strategy to prevent weight gain in desk-bound workers.”

It’s important to keep in mind that, provided your posture is good, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sitting at a desk, says Fletcher Zumbusch, a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California.

“The problem is with the number of hours we spend doing it,” Zumbusch says. “Using a standing desk promotes more muscle activity and, thus, better circulation compared to a traditional desk. In addition, spending less time sitting helps keep the hips from becoming tight.”

Avoiding hip tightness is important because loss of hip mobility creates undue stress on adjacent joints. The additional stress can lead to the accelerated development of pain in the joints of the lower back, hip and knees. A standing desk can help you avoid these issues, he says.

If you’re thinking of getting a standing desk or asking your employer for one, you should keep these three things in mind, Zumbusch advises:

  • Have a health care professional help you set up your sit-stand desk.
  • Ease into a standing routine.
  • Listen to your body.

1. Have a health care professional help you set up your sit-stand desk. If your standing desk isn’t set up correctly, it can actually cause strain to your muscles, Zumbusch says. For example, leaning at awkward angles – as Donahue did when he jerry-built his standing desk – can cause stress to your neck, back and leg muscles. If your company has an ergonomic expert or a registered nurse with ergonomics training, have him or her help you set up your standing desk, Zumbusch says. Most physical therapists should also able to help with the set up.[ 

2. Ease into a standing routine. Though sitting much of the work day probably isn’t great for your health, your body’s probably accustomed to it, Zumbusch says. Your body may not be ready to stand at your desk for the same amount of time you’ve spent sitting. Eventually, you want to get to where you’re splitting your time standing and sitting roughly equally. Initially, though, try standing for shorter intervals, like 15 to 30 minutes at a time, he says.

3. Listen to your body. If your legs or feet are feeling sore from standing, pay attention to your body, Zumbusch says. “Don’t be unrealistic and expect to feel amazing immediately,” he says. “Listen to your body, and if you continue to feel discomfort or pain, don’t be afraid to ask for outside help (from an ergonomics expert or a physical therapist trained in ergonomics). It could be that your set up isn’t right or you’re spending too much time standing right away without transitioning into it.”

Don’t Go From Sitting to Standing All Day

It may be tempting after you’ve jettisoned your chair and transitioned into a sit-stand desk to try standing all or most of the work day. That would be a mistake, because standing all day is no better than sitting for eight or more hours, says Alan Hedge, a professor in the department of design and environment analysis at Cornell University. “If what you’re doing is replacing sitting with standing, you’re not actually doing your body any favors,” he says. “In fact, you’re introducing a whole variety of new risk factors.”

For example, standing too much can compress the spine and lead to lower back problems over time. It can also boost your risk for varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis and other cardiovascular problems since the heart has to work against gravity to keep blood flowing up from your toes, Hedge says. In fact, a 2017 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology that looked at the health of more than 7,000 people in various professions found that workers who primarily stood on the job had double the risk of heart disease over about a 12-year period than people who mostly sat. “Combinations of sitting and standing are likely to have beneficial cardiovascular health benefits,” the authors concluded.

Indeed, Hedge has found that that the 20:8:2 regimen – or sitting (in a good posture) for 20 minutes, standing for eight minutes and standing while moving (think gentle stretching or walking) for two minutes – is ideal. “If you go from sitting to standing and vice versa frequently throughout the day … that completely eradicates any of the supposed risk factors associated with sitting, or indeed with standing,” he says.

Many people who try sit-stand desks may not stick with them long enough to realises benefits. Research suggests that a significant percentage of individuals who use standing desks soon abandon them, Hedge says. Studies suggest that after a month, only about one-third of people who went to a sit-stand work station are still using it, he says. Computer prompts reminding users when to stand and sit may increase the utilisation of such desks. People who received such reminders “were more active and transitioned between sitting and standing more frequently throughout the day than their counterparts who did not receive prompts,” according to the study, published in July in the journal Applied Ergonomics. Study participants who got the reminders cited “a decrease in body discomfort, increased mental focus and increased productivity” as reasons frequently make posture changes. Researchers wrote that questions remained whether these behavioural changes would be sustained over time.

The Importance of Sitting During Some Activities

While there are many advantages to using a sit-stand desk, you should keep in mind there’s a reason why we drive sitting down and why some surgeons perform detailed surgery while seated. Our brains just perform some tasks – like those that require fine motor skills – better sitting down, Hedge says.

“The brain works by processing things sequentially, so it becomes hard to do multiple things at once,” he says. “The key here is don’t throw everything away because we have really good chairs these days.”

One thing a sit-stand desk is unlikely to help you with is weight loss. One 2017 analysis of 44 studies in the journal Circulation found that trading sitting for standing for six hours a day burns only about 50 more calories. Eat an extra apple (close to 100 calories), and you’ve already overcompensated.

The fact that a sit-stand desk probably won’t help you quickly drop pounds is no reason to pass on it, Zumbusch says. Standing at your desk for part of the day can help your hips stay flexible, increase muscle activity and improve circulation. “When done correctly, I think a standing desk can be a great addition to almost anyone’s life,” he says.

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