Should I buy a standing desk?
That's a question many of us are asking, as we see colleagues or hear of friends opting for a more physically active approach to computer time. It sounds like a sensible move but hesitation arises about whether our own body can adapt to standing all day.
Montreal Web developer Mikhael Cho, whose story The Globe recounted, ditched his because of the physical discomfort and effect on his productivity.
Lakehead University associate professor of kinesiology Tony Bauer has a sit-stand desk himself and has been recommending them in his corporate consultations. But he stresses they aren't Nirvana.
"It's probably a little more complicated than it appears to use the equipment properly. And it is a change, so you need time to adjust," he said in an interview. Companies, he feels, should hire ergonomists or kinesiologists to advise on such transitions, and even individuals making the change in a home office should consider getting assistance.
It's about the spine. It's about blood circulation. And it's about movement.
When we sit, our pelvis rotates and the curve in the lumbar spine flattens. That compresses the back region and disks, and can create medical issues. A lumbar support can help and he has seen some modern chairs with inflatable bladders that can adjust to your needs. "They have some amazing chairs out there," he said. "Having a good chair is a big plus."
But that still encourages a sedentary lifestyle, if you spend long periods of time at your desk, which reduces the flow of blood back to the heart. The blood pools in the lower extremities, which is inefficient and unhealthy for your body. Lactic acid also accumulates; the muscles tire, and soreness can occur. Movement counters those dangers. It gets blood circulating. So you want to get up from your chair regularly.
Prof. Bauer suggests adjusting your chair and body, leaning forward or backward in addition to the normal position, to create a different posture for the body to respond to. With wireless laptops and keyboards, that's easier to arrange. "We try to promote variability, whether sitting or standing," he said. But he adds that it's not easy because humans are habitual, preferring to maintain their usual patterns.
Sit-stand desks, of course, offer considerable variability. He suggests changing every hour or two, although early in the morning, when you're fresh, you may want to try a longer spurt of standing. It might seem logical to switch every 15 minutes, but he says that requires too much adjustment and most people will get fed up with such a regimen. When switching from standing to being seated, he suggests taking time to walk around a bit, ensuring movement between intense work periods.
Our bodies crave movement. He notes we naturally move when sleeping – for some people, 60 to 80 times in a night. "But in the workplace, you can be stuck in one position. That's the trend as everything moves onto a screen. You don't have to go anywhere to get info," he said. So make sure you go somewhere – whether to the washroom or over to a colleague's desk to chat. Or try some simple seated exercises to increase circulation and counter the ill effects on the hands and fingers of keyboarding.
Standing is better for the spine, mechanically, as you maintain your spinal curvature. Some people with abnormal spines will have trouble standing but most people stand better than they sit, from a spine-eye-view.
He cites one study that found about double the pressure on the disks when sitting than standing. Gravity creates compression but when standing, the erector spinal muscles that thread from your neck to the pelvis hold you up. The muscles in your legs also act to keep you balanced – we aren't conscious that we sway constantly to maintain balance – and that increases venous circulation. But if you stand too long, you can get pooling of the blood and in an extreme situation can faint.
"Standing is more natural for the body but, habitually and culturally, it's not. We think of sitting as regular practice, as you're relaxed. When you stand, you get fatigued. But comfort will come in time," he said.
So when introducing standing to your work situation, go slowly, perhaps only half an hour at a time initially. He also suggests considering some of the stools on the market for standing desks that you can gently lean against for part of the time. "The key is movement, however. It gets blood going and helps deal with fatigue," he said.
That advice is echoed by San Diego personal trainer Derrick Price, who highlights another impact of desks: on our fascia, the all-important connective tissue throughout the body that we need to be elastic. The fascia needs exercise but repetition can lead to soft tissue injury, be it soreness, stiffness or a tear. "Sitting or standing – or anything else – done too long leads the body to lose elasticity," he warns.
He urges his workplace clients to move around every two hours. "I don't care if you stand or sit. Variability is the key. The more we can encourage it, the more it will stimulate the body in a good way," he said.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.