Should You Opt For a Standing Desk?
As an antidote to myriad health problems that originate or are exacerbated from sitting for extended periods, 53 percent of U.S. employers offer their workers the option of using standing desks, according to a 2018 annual study undertaken by the Society for Human Resource Management.
While it is extremely encouraging that more than half of the employers surveyed are concerned enough about employees’ sedentary habits and the ills they may cause to provide standing desks, do the desks live up to the hype and are they making a noticeable difference in employee wellness?
History of the standing desk
Although no one person is credited with inventing the standing desk, its use dates back at least to the 1400s. Standing desk users include the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and Winston Churchill. Jefferson’s model stood on six legs, was adjustable and is on display at the Monticello Visitors Center.
With such heavy-hitters as proponents of the standing desk, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why their use wasn’t more widespread. But now that the alarm has been sounded and the sedentary lifestyle both at work and at home has been characterized as deadly, the use of the standing desk is gaining ground.
Purported benefits of standing desks
You may have heard the tagline “sitting is the new smoking,” and according to experts some of the ills of too much sitting appear to be very similar to those related to smoking.
Using a standing desk rather than sitting at a traditional one is thought to reduce the incidence of obesity; reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other kinds of metabolic health issues; lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease; and lower the risk of developing many forms of cancer. Because the use of standing desks has been linked to a reduction in the risk of developing some of these major, chronic health issues, it correlates to an overall decrease in long-term mortality for standers versus sitters.
And those who they think their hour of daily exercise cancels out sitting’s negative effects might be sorely mistaken. Studies point to the fact that even bouts of strenuous exercise don’t counteract hours and hours of sitting on a regular basis.
Don’t pull the chair out from under me just yet…
Some more recent studies, however, seem to suggest that extensive sitting might not actually be the cause of these negative health issues but might be more of a correlating factor. So, sitting for long periods might not be the actual cause of chronic diseases but might indicative of other poor health issues or behaviors that could contribute to disease.
And then there are the studies that refute the standing desk theory altogether and imply that too much standing can be detrimental to your health.
Pros of using a standing desk
As with just about everything, there are pros and cons to both sitting and standing. In addition, to lowering the risk of some major health issues listed above, some upsides of using a standing desk are as follows.
- Alleviates neck and back pain: Those who suffer from lower back or upper back and neck pain from hunching over a keyboard, sometimes find that their back pain and goes away after switching to a standing desk.
- Improved posture and increased core strength: Standers often notice an improvement in their posture and core strength since standing engages the abdominal and back muscles more than sitting.
- More energy: Standing desk users report that they feel more energetic while standing and are less likely to suffer from that mid-afternoon post-lunch slump.
- Boosts productivity: Standing employees who have more energy might enjoy a boost in productivity and creativity.
Cons of the standing desk
Some experts claim that standing all day is just as bad as sitting all day. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology and published in 2017, tracked the health of more than 7,000 employees in a wide variety of jobs over a 12-year period. The study found that those subjects whose jobs required them to stand most of the day doubled their risk of cardiovascular disease in comparison to those employees who primarily sat for their jobs.
Other downsides of using a standing desk are the following.
- Increase in back pain: Standing for long periods can compress your spine, which can lead to lower back pain.
- Increase in the risk for varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, and other cardiovascular issues: These issues stem from the fact that while standing for a long time, your heart has to work extra hard to pump blood up from your feet.
- Foot pain/soreness: Standing for a long time taxes your feet, especially if you aren’t wearing proper fitting, supportive shoes.
- Swelling of the ankles and feet: Standing can cause blood to pool in your lower extremities, causing swelling of the feet and ankles.
Making the switch from a sitting desk to a standing one does not automatically vault an employee into an increased state of wellness. As Aaron E. Carroll wrote in the article “Are You Sitting Down? Standing Desks Are Overrated,” on nytimes.com, “Standing is not exercising.” People who switch to a standing desk shouldn’t assume that they are now healthier because they are standing all day.
If you want to make the switch
Standing desks are available in a variety of price points and can cost thousands of dollars. Before investing big bucks in something that you might find doesn’t suit your work style, try a makeshift standing desk first.
Elevate your computer on your regular desk (you can use books, boxes, etc.) and work that way until you are sure that standing is right for you. Or maybe you find out that it doesn’t work for you and the type of work you do.
Like any new physical activity, ease into it. Don’t start outstanding for eight hours the first day. Alternate between sitting and standing until you gradually work up to standing longer than you are sitting.
Wear supportive, comfortable shoes since you are going to be on your feet for long periods.
Invest in an anti-fatigue mat to stand on, which are readily available at home and office supply stores.
Be conscious of your posture and stance while standing. It is still easy to hunch over your computer while standing, especially if it isn’t at the right position for your height.
What if you just can’t stand it?
If you’ve tried a makeshift standing desk and decided to stand isn’t right for you or the type of work you do makes standing and performing work tasks difficult, you can still make changes to your daily sitting routine that can benefit your health.
First and foremost, make sure your desk chair offers good support for your neck and back.
Make sure your computer monitor and keyboard are appropriately positioned while sitting in your chair.
And still, probably the best option is to periodically get up from your chair and move if you have a job that permits it. Walk to the water cooler or the bathroom or walk up and down a set of stairs.
If you have a job that doesn’t allow you to leave your desk area, stand up and stretch, walk or march in place. Look for exercises you can do while seated; there are more than you might expect. The key is to avoid being in the same posture for great lengths of time, whether it is at your new standing desk or sitting at a traditional one.
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