Why I switched to a standing desk

by Matt Mecham on March 28, 2012

in Articles, Health & Fitness, Reviews

Are you sitting comfortably?
Die Euphorie erreicht ihren Höhepunkt
Any office worker chained to their computer for the best part of the day will undoubtably complain of RSI, lower back pain or mysterious cramps and aches that come and go. I am the same. I’ve been working at a desk for nearly 15 years now and I’m convinced that it’s responsible for a weak lower back, tight shoulders and pins and needles that start at my elbow and travel to my fingers occasionally.

There is growing evidence that sitting down for long periods of time can increase your risk of death by as much as 40%. Mark’s Daily Apple wrote about this in 2009, the NY times in 2010, Men’s Health in 2010 and fascist Nazi mouthpiece the Daily Mail a few days ago.

I know. You’re rolling your eyes and you’re about to hit close before I start waxing lyrical about soaking beans, weaving hemp and hugging trees. Stick with me for a second, though.

I generally take my news with a healthy dose of skepticism too. Scientific research is notorious for mistaking causation as evidence. My first reaction was a sarcastic eye roll. “They” are always coming up with new ways to ruin our fun. Smoking, drinking, saturated fat, sugar, artificial sweeteners, plastic, frying pans, bacon, salt, and now the most innocent of all activities: sitting.

After revisiting these articles for a thorough read my resolve started to weaken. The evidence was quite compelling once you get past the headlines.

So what’s so bad about sitting? Well, sitting for long periods of time switches off the electrical activity in your legs, it drops your metabolism down to burning a single calorie a minute, the enzymes that break down fat drops 90%, ‘good’ cholesterol drops 20% and insulin effectiveness drops 24%. It will also shorten hip flexors and weaken your glutes and hamstrings affecting your posture even when standing. (Source)

Men’s Health offer that you can mitigate some of this damage by ensuring you stretch or move for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. But lets be honest. Who is going to remember to do that? I can lose track of entire hours when I’m “plugged into” code. I once made a vow to rest my eyes every 30 minutes while working. That lasted about 2 hours.

We’re generally led to believe that if we eat right, and exercise regularly with intensity then we’re generally ‘undoing’ these bad things. I often comforted myself that even though I was generally sedentary during the work day, I lifted weights three times a week and ran a few times a week so I was A-OK.

However, researchers found that exercising regularly regardless of intensity cannot undo the damage your chair causes you. In short, you can’t out-exercise your chair habit.

I tend to work from about 8:00am until 5:00pm and most of that time I’m sat in my chair. During term time, I’ll take the short walk with Luke to his pre-school twice a day and I workout daily Monday to Friday for about an hour but other than that, I’m sitting. After I finish work, I’m generally sitting until I go to bed. A quick calculation proved that I spend an alarming amount of time sat on my well padded behind. Even if you don’t buy into the science you can’t help but recognise that can’t be good for you.

Like many of you, my line of work requires me to be at my desk all day so, as the proverb says “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain”

Switch to a stand up desk
Standing / stand up desks have been lurking in my periphery for a while. There’s several good blogs from those who’ve switched already. (Here, here and here to link just a few). Those that have switched generally rave about the increased energy and focus standing while working provides. This is especially attractive to me as I find it harder and harder to concentrate daily. I blame my advancing years and saturation in social media. Perhaps slumping over my desk, mouth slightly agape as my neurones struggle to fire by 3pm is partially attributed to that ‘switching off’ that results from sitting in a chair.

I did a little research on height adjustable desks. There are some excellent desks available such as the GeekDesk which offers powered height adjustment. However, I didn’t want to lay out £700+ on a new desk. I found an excellent manually cranked desk for less than £400 at Posturite. The manual adjustment didn’t bother me as I don’t intend to drop it down for seating.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on fancy desks, though. Many people have used boxes, books and crates to raise their desk up or to raise their keyboard and monitor up. I’ve even seen an ironing board used as a standing desk. I went with an adjustable desk solely because I have two monitors and assorted peripherals that shouldn’t be precariously balanced on boxes. If you generally work from a laptop then you have much more freedom.

That said, there is no ‘silver’ bullet. Just as humans aren’t designed to sit all day, they’re not designed to stand still all day either. This is the mistake that many often make when they switch to standing desks. Varicose veins, plantar fasciitis and a whole host of other conditions are caused or made worse by long periods of static standing. For this reason, I did purchase a draftsman’s stool for occasional sitting breaks and an inexpensive anti-fatigue mat for my feet; much like the kind you’d use for bar or cashier work.

So how’s it going?
Well,  it’s only a few days in but I’m really enjoying it. I do seem to have better focus. Perhaps it’s the placebo effect or perhaps it’s the greater sense of urgency one has when you’re acutely aware of minor discomfort. I feel more compelled to get on with my work than procrastinate or trawl through Facebook.
The sense of freedom shouldn’t be discounted either. A chair does trap you under the desk. I generally found I had to scoot under the desk and fidget until the castors were in the right place on the carpet and my body wedged against the wood of the desk. When I hit a problem that I had to think about, I’d generally stare at the monitor or browse another website until a solution prevented itself. While standing, I can literally take a step back and move about a bit to try and get through the block which seems much more effective.

Indeed, yesterday I stood from about 12:30-5:00pm without a break and this was my most productive portion of the day and I managed to fix a slew of bugs reported in IP.Board including several issues that I hadn’t managed to fully grasp in months.

I won’t lie, it can be uncomfortable. But I expected that to begin with. I have less than fond memories of working in a corner shop which required standing for the entire eight hour shift. The stool allows me to take a 10-15 minute break without adjusting the desk. I sit for a short while after exercise. I don’t fancy standing immediately after finishing a set of heavy barbell squats. When not in use, I tuck it under the desk and use the foot ring as a rest for one of my feet to take the weight off. I generally find I shift and fidget about when I’m working rather than stand completely still. After a while, I’m not really aware that I’m standing as I immerse myself in my work.

The geek in me loves tracking stats, so I was thrilled to discover the ‘Standing Clock‘ which I’ll be using for a few weeks perhaps with a follow up blog.

If you’ve been thinking about switching to a standing desk, why not get a taster by finding activities you can do on a laptop or iPad such as reading email, researching articles or general leisure time surfing. Find a high counter like a kitchen worktop and give it a go. It might feel a bit odd for a few days but it quickly becomes second nature.


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