The Key to Standing Desks? Easy Does It

My wife Mary Ann working at a standing desk with adjustable heights. Jim Motavalli

I bow to no one in my admiration of standing desks. I have a height-adjustable version, via Standdesk, and I use it every day with absolutely no ill effects so far. But I also have a separate sitting desk, and I use that work station about half the time. You could say I’m hedging my bets, and I have some solid science on my side.

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An Ikea motorized standing desk. At different heights you can sit or stand, varying your routine. Mack Male/Flickr

My grandmother and aunts all have wicked osteoporosis. And I decided I was sitting too much after reading "Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World," by Dr. Kelly Starrett with Juliet Starrett and Glen Cordoza. It’s full of scary statistics.

The human body was designed to be upright, the book says, and the consequences of sitting so much include: rounded spine, loss of normal range of motion, diaphragm dysfunction, numbness and tingling, neck pain and headaches, low back pain, jaw pain and something really frightening called “fatty neck hump.” Might as well add “premature death.”

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An improvised standing desk — this is one way to recycle dead desktops. Hugo Ferreira/Flickr

People reading stuff like this have purchased standing desks in droves — startups began making them and doubling their sales nearly overnight. Some handy souls even started making their own from Ikea spare parts.

I got my bamboo-topped Standdesk and assembled it. It’s motorized and has memory positions so both my wife and I can use it at different heights. It’s big enough so I can (but haven’t yet) move over my desktop computer for sitting work.

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This standing desk has a door and some bricks as its main building blocks. The only issue with these clever ideas: They're not adjustable. Paul Houle/Flickr

It’s part of my daily routine now. I’m writing this on the standing desk, which I find sturdy and comfortable. But then I started seeing the pushback. At an event I ran into Gregg Stebben, co-host of "Men’s Health Live." Who better to ask about standing desks? “I got my desk from KI and fell in love with it immediately,” he told me. “I liked it so much I used it for the entire work day and eventually blew out my back,” he told me.

Whoa. That bears investigating. It turns out there’s something of a standing desk backlash going on. NPR quotes experts saying there’s not enough evidence to prove standing is a health benefit. U.S. News wants you to know the “Five Ways Your Standing Desk is Doing More Harm Than Good.” Among the risk factors, it said, are spinal compression, lower back problems (yes, the same malady you can get from sitting too much!), carotid arteries, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis and other cardiovascular problems.

A young hipster at Crew reports on “Why I Killed My Standing Desk.” Mikael Cho writes:

The standing desk helped me stay focused for certain tasks like answering email (partly because I knew I could only stand for so long). But when it came to tasks that required a bit more focused thought, like writing, I was distracted. I thought more about the pain in my legs than the words I was trying to put on the page.

Time for some perspective on all this: You can’t go directly from long-term chair jockey to full-time standee. Using the standing desk all day (especially if you’re out of shape) is not much better, if at all, than sitting all day. You need to use it in moderation, and ease into it — don't think you can take eight hours straight the first day.

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John M. loves his stand/sit desk "because standing is healthier.". John M/Flickr

Common sense is called for. Deskbound says to wear flat shoes or go barefoot at your standing desk. Some cushioning is good — I’m standing on a carpet. Aids to making your standing not quite so unrelieved include footstools, anti-fatigue mats, lant boards, foot rails and fidget bars.

And the height is important. Your elbows should be parallel to the desktop and the floor. The top of the computer monitor is supposed to be at eye level, but I’m finding this hard to achieve with my laptop. If I raise the screen I also raise the keyboard. The solution might be an external monitor.

My wife uses a second monitor, and she tells me, “I move around a lot while I’m working on the standing desk, stand on my toes, do a lot of stretches.” That’s good. Standing still pushes some of the same buttons as sitting still.

To clarify this backlash thing, I reached out to Dr. Kelly Starrett, who turns out to be a passionate and highly vocal defender of the standing revolution. He said sitting office workers are prime candidates for musculoskeletal injuries, and the sedentary life is “a huge physiological scourge.” Asked about people who complain about pain after using standing desks, he says they’re rushing into it.

Starrett says that first-timers should perhaps stand for one hour a day — not all day. “The body is a righteous, bad-ass adaption machine,” he said. “And we have a genetic drive to be in constant motion. Your muscles get shorter, adapting to sitting, so you have to take it slow to let your tissues adapt, reclaim your personhood, and train as if for a marathon.”

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Accessories can help. An anti-fatigue mat takes the pressure off.

And Starrett likes fidget bars you can rest one leg on, and squishy anti-fatigue mats, which support your feet and take some of the pressure off your heels and back. The CumulusPro Professional Grade mat retails for under $100, and Rogue Fitness makes a fidget bar, developed with Starrett’s input, for $75, but you could try substituting a low stool.

A sadder-but-wiser Stebben says chiropractors didn’t think his back problems were the result of standing all day at his desk, but when he finally tried just sitting down “the pain went away immediately.” Does he blame the standing desk? No! “I was a moron,” he said. “I’m not good at moderation.” Now he moves around a lot, and swears by his anti-fatigue mat.

The bottom line is to proceed with caution. I keep coming back to a statistic, quoted in a Harvard report, that the human body burns 30 percent more calories standing than sitting. That same Harvard study concludes, “Prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes [cardiovascular disease and diabetes included] regardless of physical activity.” In other words, even if you have intense workouts for the recommended 30 minutes a day, you’re not escaping this problem. A standing desk provides an answer, but the transition isn’t seamless.

Follow these simple steps, via DeskHacks:

  • Maintain correct posture. Tighten stomach muscles and squeeze your buttock muscles together.
  • Vary your standing position.“Your best position is your next position,” Starrett says.
  • Get that anti-fatigue mat and be careful about shoes — no high heels! Barefoot is great.
  • Don’t stand all day. Take frequent breaks, walk around and spend at least some of the day sitting (especially in the early days). Stretch several times a day.

Here's how to make a standing desk with $28 worth of Ikea parts:

And on the lighter side: