About a year ago, Montreal Web developer Mikael Cho became entranced with the idea of having a standing desk, after being exposed to media reports and comments from other techies about sitting being the new smoking.
But after two weeks of trying to improve his health by standing at his desk, he decided the notion was great in theory, but not so wonderful in practice. After further research into the issue, he has decided standing desks may be poor in both theory and practice, and recommends on his blog other measures for containing the dangers of sitting for long periods.
Mr. Cho, the 28-year-old founder of Crew, which matches freelance developers with Web projects, jerry-built his standing desk with $22 worth of IKEA parts, essentially a shelf and small table added to his existing desk. At the time, actual standing desks were going for about $800 and that seemed too expensive for something that might not work out. Still, he felt like a new dad when the final screw was in place and he could reduce his periods of sitting while working. And he went for 90 minutes, feeling on top of the world.
But the next day, he found his legs would hurt after about an hour standing, despite placing a yoga mat under his feet, and his back was painful, with his shoulders seeming to cave in. He had expected it to take some time to adjust and so persevered – after all, when we exercise our body in a new way the resulting pain can be good. But he could only manage 20 minutes during his next stretch at the computer before succumbing. He noticed he was bending over to stretch his back or leaning on one leg to give his other leg a break.
Mentally, it was also not working out. He began to realize his desk was not a place he wanted to be working. In the afternoons, when he was tackling e-mail, it wasn't too bad. Knowing he had only about an hour before the pain would intensify might even have helped somewhat, pushing him to quicker, terser messages. But at the same time, he felt he was rushing his communications, and worried about the consequences.
He usually devotes his mornings to writing, whether documents for his company or blog posts. And standing was proving counterproductive, since he couldn't focus as intently as he needed. He was thinking more of his body than the words he wanted to put on the screen.
After two weeks, he could manage four hours at a time. But there was still physical stress and he noticed that the breaks his body demanded often came at inopportune times for work focus and flow. So he began to research the issue, and learned there were more ill effects to standing than its proponents were usually admitting. Indeed, he decided that standing is not necessarily better than sitting if you do it for a prolonged period of time.
He had assumed he was burning calories but in reality it wasn't that many. His research suggested walking up and down the stairs in his home one time might expend as many calories as a day standing at his desk. Standing for long stretches can also lead to varicose veins and pressure on the knees.
So he killed his standing desk, returning to sitting, and began to adjust in other ways to promote better health:
He now works with his feet up about 18 inches from the floor on a foot rest. His chair is also tilted back so that rather than sitting straight or hunching forward, he is at 135 degrees to his monitor. He believes this helps posture, improves circulation, and reduces the pressure on his back through the unusual angle of the chair.
He interlaces air squats into his day while waiting for his coffee to brew or the microwave to warm some food. The squats release enzymes that break down the production of fat in the body and improve circulation in the legs.
He does a series of special stretches for his hips. Sitting tightens the hips and his research suggests that's what leads to back pain. The three stretches, which take a few minutes, were designed by Crossfit specialist Kelly Starrett.
He finds it easy to get some exercise about every hour to 90 minutes. When he gets distracted, finding himself with an urge to look at Facebook or Twitter, he'll get up, move around, walk the dog, or try some squats. In this fashion, he feels he is solving all the problems the standing desk was intended to remedy. So even though he has noticed IKEA has a sitting-standing desk at an attractive price of $489 that might suit other people, and make a trial of standing less risky, he's sitting firm.
"If a standing desk works for you, that's great. But if it doesn't, don't force it – especially if it negatively impacts your work. Standing while working might not be for you. It wasn't for me. And that's okay. Standing for long periods of time isn't much better than sitting anyway," he concluded his blog post on his experience.
"The key is to do some activity every day. It doesn't have to be a five-mile sprint. A walk to and from work, taking the stairs, or some squats while you're waiting for your lunch can be enough to do the trick."
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 Harvey Schachter