8 Things You Need to Know Before You Set Up a Standing Desk

Before you join the standing desk club, there are some details that you should know — and one of them is made ironically clear in this photo: Standing desk or not, ergonomics matter. . Scott Ogle/Flickr

Some might describe standing desks as just another silly, overhyped fad, but for me, switching to one of these unconventional workspaces was nothing short of life-changing, and I know I'll never go back to a traditional sitting situation.

It sounds dramatic, but think about it: Many people who do the bulk of their work through digital means (like me) are parked on their behinds in front of a screen for at least eight or nine hours a day. And let's not even get into all the sitting we do off the clock; in our cars, on the train, in front of the TV. At some point, something is bound to give, and I knew I didn't want that "something" to be my back or my heart.

Standing desks have several things going for them that typical sitting desks don't — they promote better posture, they burn more calories, and they may give you a fighting chance against all the scary statistics about sedentary lifestyles. From my own anecdotal experience, I've also found that my standing desk has made me feel significantly more energized and focused at work ... sometimes I even catch myself dancing and bobbing freely along to the music streaming from my earbuds.

"Humans aren't built to sit all day. This is much healthier."
"Humans aren't built to sit all day. This is much healthier.". Randall Munroe/XKCD

In the years since I set up my desk at the office, I've learned a few things along the way (especially in the beginning), and I'm always eager to share this information with people who have even a slight tangential interest in the subject. (To riff off that well-known jab at vegans: "How can you tell if someone has a standing desk? Don't worry, they'll tell you.")

Interested in getting your own standing desk? To make sure you give your body and mind a positive start, here are a few things to keep in mind before you take the plunge.

1. You Don't Need an Expensive Standing Desk

Standing desk made from soda cans
You don't have to spend a lot for a standing desk. Just get creative. Marco Arment/flickr

If you've ever flipped through the Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog, you are keenly aware that there are always people out there who are ready to sell inexplicably expensive versions of inexpensive things. Standing desks are among these items. Sure, you could pay $400 for a manufactured standing desk and it'll probably work out just fine, but if you're looking to save money while also being pro-active about your health, the DIY route is where it's at. Another reason to go the homemade route is that if you later realize the standing desk is not for you, you won't be stuck with a useless piece of furniture that cost several hundred dollars.

So how exactly do you create your own standing desk? Your imagination is the limit. People use everything from concrete blocks to soda cans (as seen above), but for my own elevated work station, I followed in the footsteps of Colin Nederkoorn with his simple yet effective $22 IKEA standing desk. Here's what mine looks like:

The author's DIY standing desk made from an IKEA side table, a couple of brackets and a shelf.
DIY standing desk made from IKEA side table, brackets and a shelf. Catie Leary

Even after several years of use, it's still super sturdy! I couldn't be more pleased, and I recommend the DIY plan to anyone who asks.

2. Don't Skimp on the Accessories

While building a standing desk can be done on the cheap, it's the quality of the accessories that can really make or break the experience. Before you start using your standing desk, it is imperative that you invest in a stool and an anti-fatigue mat.

Word to the wise: These two items are not optional. You need a stool to periodically take breaks and rest your legs, and an anti-fatigue mat is important for cushioning and supporting your feet. This is especially beneficial when you're just starting out, but the truth is, these items are vital for as long as you use the desk.

3. If You're Using a Laptop, Invest in a Separate Keyboard or Monitor

Makeshift standing desk in home office
This makeshift standing desk made from an old piano bench is a good start, but its ergonomics could use some work. Catie Leary

The touted ergonomics of your standing desk won't mean much if your hands are nearly level with your screen. If you use a laptop as your primary computer and want to rig up a standing desk, it's a really good idea to buy a separate keyboard and mouse unit. If you prefer to use the keyboard of your laptop, hook up an independent monitor instead. Either way you go, making these adjustments will ensure both comfort and utility.

4. If You're the Only One in Your Shared Office to Have One, You're Going to Get a Lot of Funny Looks

When I installed my humble standing desk at the MNN office, I was the first to do so among my co-workers. With our loose, cube-esque office setup, I'm not sure who was more uncomfortable — me, for towering over everyone and sticking out like a sore thumb, or my co-workers, who I'm sure thought I was staring down at them all day.

However, it turned out my co-workers weren't nearly as weirded out as I thought they would be because by the end of the year, the majority of my immediate desk neighbors had either already hopped aboard the standing desk train or were making concrete plans to do so.

5. With a Standing Desk, "Sad Desk Lunches" Quickly Become "Sad, Messy Desk Lunches"

A classic sad desk lunch: Ramen noodles.
A classic sad desk lunch: ramen noodles. Dragon Images/Shutterstock

It's not uncommon for office workers to unwittingly embrace the depressing legacy of the "sad desk lunch," but having a standing desk changes all that. Eating while standing and working at your desk is incredibly difficult unless A) you have a highly coordinated, superhuman multitasking ability, or B) you're cool with dribbling Indian food down the front of your shirt.

While it's tempting to stay at your desk during the lunch hour to bang out a giant pile of work, having a standing desk that prevents you from doing that is actually a blessing. It encourages you to take an actual break from not only standing, but also staring nonstop at a screen. So take advantage of this. Go sit somewhere peaceful and enjoy your meal.

Pro-tip: While you're at it, leave your mobile device behind and focus on your meal sans any electronic distractions. It might sound crazy in this day and age, but you'd be surprised at how liberating it can be to disconnect for even half an hour.

6. You Will Probably Have to Toss Out (or Severely Neglect) Most of Your Shoe Collection

It should come as no surprise to learn that high heels and standing desks are not a great combination. But sometimes even shoes that seem like they'd be comfortable to stand in for eight hours are actually the masters of deception. In the first few months of this new experience, you will quickly learn who your real friends are. For many people, this isn't a huge deal, but if you have a passion for shoes, you'll have some difficult decisions to make when cleaning out your closet.

It gets better, though! Over time, your shoe shopping strategies will change, and you'll begin to pay closer attention to what kind of shoes works best for standing in all day.

7. Poor Posture Can Negate the Positive Benefits of a Standing Desk

man at standing desk
Now that you have a standing desk, don't just stand there all day. ramsey beyer/flickr

The simple act of installing a standing desk isn't a cure-all for spinal health. One of the major reasons people decide to get an elevated work station is because they feel like they're not moving enough, but if you get one and then never move from your standing position, you really aren't doing any better. You have to meet it halfway, which means maintaining awareness and accountability for your posture, as well as taking breaks, moving around and stretching your back, neck and legs.

Pro-tip: If you're doing your best to maintain a healthy posture yet still find yourself in discomfort or pain, it's likely an issue caused by a poor ergonomic setup. Double-check to make sure everything is aligned correctly.

8. A Standing Desk Is Not for Everyone, and That’s OK

If you find standing while you work to be a hellish, painful experience, don't force it.

There's a lot of buzz going around about whether daily prolonged periods of sitting affects mortality rates and whether standing desks (or any other unconventional workstations) are the solution to the problem. But when you get down to it, the prevailing issue boils down to one point: We're not moving enough.

So if having a standing desk proves to be an unpleasant experience for you, find other ways to incorporate physical activity into your day. Maybe go for a quick run with your dog before work or take a stroll outside on your lunch break. If you're still feeling energized after work, hit the gym or, hell, just dance around in your living room naked if that sounds interesting. The point is, only your body can tell you what works for you!