Practical Science on Movement and Pain

Is a Standing Desk A Good Idea?

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Strike one for the standing desk

There has been a lot of discussion on the internet recently about the idea that excessive sitting is bad for your health. For example, a widely circulated article from the New York Times asked whether sitting is a “lethal activity.” The concern is based on several studies that have shown that the number of hours spent sitting per day is a risk factor for a wide variety of health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and just plain dying. The interesting thing is that the association remains even after correcting for the amount of time spent exercising. In other words, it appears that the debts incurred by excessive sitting cannot be “paid back” by marathons, boot camps, or other forms of penance.

This news was very disturbing to many health conscious professionals who always thought they could outrun their 60 hour per week desk jobs with spin classes at lunch and triathlons on the weekend. And others wondered  – how could they simultaneously get eight hours a day of crucial health and fitness advice from the internet and follow it at the same time? It’s a paradox. Is a standing desk the solution? It’s a trendy idea, with many credible proponents.

I think it’s an interesting idea, but I have always been a little skeptical. Here is a summary of my thinking on this topic at this stage.

Correlation is not causation

First, let’s remember the well known but often ignored rule that correlation does not equal causation. Even if studies show an association between the amount of time spent sitting and certain health problems, we cannot conclude that sitting causes the health problems. It remains possible that the health problems cause the sitting, or some unmeasured third factor causes both sitting and the health problems. However, I find the association very compelling because it persists even after exercise is taken into account. So it’s worth taking seriously. Let’s look at what mechanisms might be involved.

Metabolic slowdown

So what’s the problem with sitting? (No, it’s not that it shortens the hip flexors.) Researchers attempting to explain the association between sitting and bad health focus on the metabolic effects of prolonged inactivity.

Sedentary life is likely an unnatural state for humans. During most of human history, life would have required a high volume of at least low level physical activity such as walking. Modern hunter gatherers walk on average more than ten miles per day.

When you go from walking to sitting, your rate of caloric expenditure drops by a third to almost as low as it can go. Even one day spent in a sedentary state has measurable effects on various markers of metabolic health such as insulin sensitivity and HDL cholesterol. Researchers propose that that these effects add up in the long term to increase the risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

So part of the idea behind a standing desk is that it will increase low level physical activity throughout the day. Even though standing might not seem like exercise, small moves add up, as demonstrated by the research on non exercise activity theromogensis or NEAT. This shows that part of the difference between being lean or overweight lies in the amount of minor unconscious fidgeting type movements done throughout the day. If many small movements can be the difference between being lean and overweight, then perhaps spending the day standing versus sitting can prevent other forms of metabolic harm.

I am all in favor of increasing your low level physical activity throughout the day and have no doubt that this is the natural and healthy state for humans. However, I am skeptical that a standing desk is a very good way to get this additional activity. Here’s why.

Standing occupations have risks too

Ironically, there are several papers out there outlining the dangers of prolonged standing which make the case that many workers should be entitled to more time sitting.

Some documented risks of standing occupations are varicose veins, chronic venous insufficiency, preterm birth, spontaneous abortion, foot pain, low back pain, and an eleven times greater risk of carotid atherosclerosis. In fact, as early as 1878 UK doctors were calling forced standing at work a form of cruelty and torture! Perhaps some exaggeration there, but certainly something to consider for those who think they are striking a blow for bodily freedom by getting out of the chair into a standing position.

Of course the response to standing versus sitting will depend to a huge extent on the individual. As with anything else, you should listen to your body. If you experience an urge to sit down while standing, this is your body telling you it is under a little stress. I doubt that you are doing yourself any favors by trading a day of sedentary comfort for a day of chronic active stress.

Humans are poorly designed for prolonged standing

Some anatomical considerations reveal why humans are not well designed for static standing. The human standing posture is rather unique in the animal kingdom for its instability. Most animals have a relatively low center of gravity and a wide base of support compared to humans, who stand vertically over two bony feet.

A standing human therefore lacks the stability of a four legged animal, and must devote significant muscle and brain activity to preventing a fall. In fact, standing is a constant oscillation of falling and recovering around a fixed central point. This is probably part of the reason why fine motor skills tend to decrease when standing.

But these same factors make humans extremely efficient at transitioning from a standing position into movement in any direction with a minimum of preparation and energy expenditure. The high center of gravity is a source of potential energy that is immediately accessible by just permitting the body to fall. Four legged animals take much more oomph to get moving, and this is part of the reason why a human can easily evade a bull in the ring and why human walking is the most efficient form of locomotion in the animal kingdom.

Human are designed for moving

Here’s a nice quote from Moshe Feldenkrais:

Indeed, the human body is badly suited for standing. Statues of human figures have to be strongly connected to a heavy base to prevent them from toppling over at the slightest disturbance. The head, the shoulders, the trunk, all the heavy parts, are placed on top, and the base is very small in comparison with the total height.  …  A martian visitor would not hesitate to conclude that the human body is the closest to an ideal frame designed for movement and the least suited for standing motionless.

Yes. I think the problem with sitting is not just the lack of energetic demand, but the lack of motion. Therefore, standing in one place only solves half the problem. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction, but it would be even better to keep stepping and go for a walk. Unlike standing, that is something your body is designed to do very well, and it probably wants you do be doing it more than you are. So walk away from the computer as often as possible. Of course you may need to walk back to keep your job.

What do you think? I’d be interested to hear about anyone’s experience with a standing desk in the comments.

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34 Responses to Is a Standing Desk A Good Idea?

  1. Fredinchina says:

    Argh, just when I was considering a standing desk……… really, no joking!
    What to do now? maybe shooting the messenger?
    Seriously, a standing desk on a conveyor belt??

    I already have a kitchen timer to correct my posture every 15 minutes…

    Fred

    • Fredinchina,

      Don’t shoot!
      I don’t mean to be to discouraging. The key point is to listen to your body. If standing is the right or wrong answer for you, your body will probably send you a pretty clear signal.

      Interesting about the kitchen timer.

      • Fredinchina says:

        LOL – okay, holding the fire… :D
        I’ll try and listen to my body, that is indeed the best course.
        Thanks ;)

        • Surfdancer says:

          HI Fredinchina!

          Perhaps you ought to consider a high stool on which to ‘perch’ with your feet widely on the stool’s foot rung below. Perching naturally aligns the spine and hips correctly and also makes you want to get up and more around more-get up and off the stool as much as possible.

          For phone calls and video meetings (where you’re not presenting to the group), I like to pace around my home as much as possible. If it’s a long meeting where we’re listening to someone, I sometimes will get on my Indo board and practice while I listen. (I always put the phone on mute in case I falll of the board.. :)))

          As long as you’re active most of the day and not lounging for hours upon end, I wouldn’t sweat it. Some work, you simply cannot do standing up or moving. You need to sit and focus for it, but still, it’s good to think of options and maybe create multiple work space options.

  2. Todd:

    what about treadmill desks? From what I’ve seen, they’re fantastic. My neighbor has one he fabicated. The pace is incredibly slow, so over a day he maybe walks 5 miles total, but he can get off and on easily if he needs to grab a document.

    http://www.treadmill-desk.com/

    Also, can the problems associated with long periods of standing be alleviated by adjusting your stance? In my qi gong practice I do a standing meditation, but my arms are raised, my knees are bent, my weight is largely on my heels, and I’m consciously aligning my body and deepening my breath. It feels fantastic, after one gets the technique down, even after 20 minutes or so.

    michael

    • Michael,

      I have heard about treadmill desks. I didn’t include them in the article because I assume they are beyond the means of most people. Seems like a good potential solution for some people, although I wonder whether the weird experience of walking while staring at a computer screen would induce some low grade chronic level of stress. But I assume the user will know whether it feels right or not just by trying it.

      I’m sure you can improve your tolerance for standing with stance adjustments, mindfulness or otherwise building stillness skills. For some people this will be a solution – for others it will remain problematic.

  3. “Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction, but it would be even better to keep stepping and go for a walk.”
    My understanding is the intentional function of a workstation like a standing desk has some benefit in just this way, to encourage smart body use and timely engagement with activity and then ease of transitioning to walking about and actually engaging with surroundings. Especially good for more agile/lean leaders engaged with the real world of people, processes and observing and interacting with the ‘world’ about her/him. Perhaps chose your boss wisely ; )
    Personally, I’ve used a stand up workstation for over a year and really like it, however I’m in the movement/ergonomics trade. I also use a stool for position change to sitting with a sliding and easily adjustable tray for keyboard and mouse. The stool also allows me to ‘get a leg up’ when standing for a different postural change which allows for more ease via a more neutral lumbar spinal ‘reset’. Good to get on the internal habit of postural change I might add ; )
    Soo…yea, step in the right direction. Thanks.
    Don

  4. Terry O. says:

    It’s worked great for Rumsfeld. He’s nearly 80, sharp as a tack & could probably kick my ass.

    I must give it a go.

  5. maricicc says:

    I take standing breaks at my desk all the time. But what would this mean for a wheelchair bound individual? It seems the studies should be directed towards their habits and health conditions. Just saying.

  6. Phil says:

    I have used a standing desk for about 4 months. Not because of any studies read or similar. I got to a point where after 35 years of mainly office type work, I have had enough of sitting. I dont know how long this will last, but I have the luxury of a fixed height standing work surface with PC, and a side table where I do reading and email from an iPad, and when I want a break from standing.

    I think a point that is lost, particularly if you connect this to ancestral health, is having the ability to move and have choices about movement. Rather than standing being better than sitting, or the reverse.

  7. If you can’t afford a treadmill you could try a do-it-yourself bicycle desk:

    http://www.obesitypanacea.com/2010/01/bicycle-computer-desk-do-it-yourself.html

    If you work from home then lying down to read (with a head elevation) is also an option.

    I like to sit at my desk on an exercise ball – only good if you have the core strength not to require back support (my young kids rarely let me sit down anyway….).

  8. François says:

    I have tried working standing: it felt very good, especially with something to place one foot around knee level. I can then switch between standing on both or standing with one foot above.
    But I doubt I would enjoy it when feeling tired. I wouldn’t move as much, and feel my poor vascular condition (heavy feet and legs).
    (not imaginating anything: that’s what happen when I go to the museum while tired, almost makes me hate Art)

    BTW, here’s a sweet software I use on my computer:
    http://www.workrave.org/

    It’s in the deposits of the major Linux ditrsibutions.
    For work PC on Windows with no admin rights, here’s the portable version.
    http://portableapps.com/apps/utilities/workrave_portable

  9. Martin says:

    Anyone seen the geekdesk (http://www.geekdesk.com/) in action? looks like could be potentially useful, allows shifting from standing to sitting and vice versa at the same workstation.

  10. Fredrik Anderson says:

    As a manual therapist I often recommend less sitting (=more standing) at work when I believe it’s needed. Many low back patients as you all know often complain about pain after prolonged sitting during the day, and that’s the indication for me that something has to be done about their working position.
    But I definetly agree that lack of motion during the 8 hour workday is the real problem, not that we don’t stand up still enough.

  11. Kneepane says:

    I think the problem is with our chairs, not with sitting per se. I always find myself sitting at the front edge of my chair in order to keep my back straight. It turns out that this may be a more natural sitting position accord to this site: http://www.acmandal.com/

    Now I’m looking for an office chair that is designed for “balanced seating”

    • Kneepane,

      Yes sitting to the front is a good option, but I think it’s best to explore all your options and keep changing it up and keep moving. See Diana’s post for some ideas.

  12. Thanks, Todd, for all your great postings. And Elaine for that fun link to the bike & ironing board solution. Being in the Feldenkrais biz myself, I’m partial to variety and novelty. I was once working on a writing project that required 12-14 hours/day at the keyboard. I had to find ways to keep moving. I varied the level of my pelvis quite a bit throughout the day. I have a laptop, so that makes for more options. I would sit on the floor, a chair, a ball, a ball chair, stand at a podium-type platform. I’ve added to my options since then. I have one of those cool “Stressless” Norwegian recliners with a swivel tray, from which I can even project my computer screen onto the wall for a change in eyes & neck position. Sometimes I sit on the floor on a meditation cushion, computer tilted upward, the front of it resting on my knees, the back of it on the floor. Or, the computer is on my Feldenkrais table (low). From here, sometimes my legs are crossed in front, sometimes I put the cushion on edge so I straddle it in a half kneel, feet back behind me. For this position, it’s also nice to use a Swiss ball, the style called “peanut”, it’s kind of like being in a saddle. Ok, that’s it from the variety corner. Diana Razumny

  13. Heather says:

    These days I work at home and I’m on the computer much of the day. My constant sitting was really starting to wear my body out so I decided to deal with the problem by constantly changing positions. I alternate between sitting, standing and laying down during my work day, because standing all day never really seemed like a good idea to me either. I also go for two walks a day and do some interval training. Doing that has eliminated the problems I was having from sitting too much.

    I’ve seen the treadmill desks before and have thought of them as a possible solution, but I’m clumsy and would probably fall off one. The bicycle desk looks like an interesting idea, but don’t know how long I could sit on a bicycle seat.

  14. Todd, excellent article, as usual. I have a standing desk, and tend to alternate between sitting and standing. What I have found in the three years of owning a standing desk is that it does get me moving more, and that there are some activities that I do better standing, and some sitting. So, I let my body and what I have on my work plate dictate how and where I work for the day.

    I’m also lucky enough to be able to get up, work for a few hours, get some movement in (a walk or some training) and then work for a few more hours. Mostly, I make a point of not remaining in one spot too long.

    • Hi Jen!

      Sorry for the delayed response, I just noticed your comment. Thanks for relating your experience. Three years of standing. Sounds like you were an early adopter. Good to hear its still working out for you. For me, my natural ability to procrastinate and lose focus on work always provides me with a million reasons to get up from the desk.

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  16. Frank Romano says:

    My experience has been that any regimes (self or company imposed) aimed at getting people off their chairs (or even away from their standing desks) and moving around on a regular basis eventually fall away. The principle reason for this appears to be people simply losing time while engrossed in what they are doing. I’ve found something that works for me which I discovered by accident.

    I bought an electric desk so I could sit sometimes and stand other times (it raises to standing height). I also bought what I think is referred to as a saddle chair. The chair has a very long lift, which allows for good hip/leg angle when sitting. What I didn’t realise when buying the chair is that while it is comfortable when you first sit in it, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable over time. The accidental result is that after about 20-30 mins you get ‘saddle sore’ and feel like getting up. But then after awhile of standing up you get tired of that so back to the seat. This goes on many, many times in the day giving me the movement that I think everyone is seeking to achieve. And most importantly, this happens without me having to think about it or contrive schedules and routines.

  17. Mary says:

    I’ve observed the vast majority of surgeons in the OR where I work are very fit. They don’t seem to mind standing for hours at a time…either their fitness is required for that feat or it’s the result of it. In any case it seems to be something the body can adapt to…

  18. Todd, For so long I’ve had the idea for computer users to interrupt bad postural habits and introduce some bio-mechanical nurturing to the nervous system throughout the day with an installed program. It could lead people through some mini Feldenkrais® ATMs (Awareness Through Movement lessons). Something along the lines of what Francois recommended with workrave. So many ideas, so little time!

  19. Steve Cook says:

    I’m thinking about a standing desk. Like you mentioned, I’m concerned about the fact that strong arguments exist against standing as well. If my work will allow me to adjust my cubicle desk to standing level, I plan to do so, then buy a drafting chair, so that I can still sit at my desk on occasion and relieve my legs and feet. Id also buy some nice shoes to help avoid foot pain.

  20. himanshu says:

    I think you missed a point. When workers do a standing job in factories, they have to stand in same posture for long time. Which is BAD. But when a modern office person works while standing, he can fidget around, move around and need not be in same posture. So I think standing is still better, with little fidgeting involved periodically. Actually, I automatically do fidgeting when I work in standing position.

  21. josh says:

    I sway gently at a standing desk. To alleviate lower back pressure, I stand with toes on a 2 inch board to create an incline. It works!

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