The standing desk has been presented as an alternative to traditional sitting desks, with the claim that their use reduces back problems, increases the energy levels of the user, and is better for fitness and circulation, as well as increasing productivity and even happiness.
Numerous start-ups, and increasingly large companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, are giving their employees the option to switch to standing desks. But, is this just a new fad, or is it indeed the healthier way to work?
Standing in the Workplace is Traditional
Standing desks are not a new concept, with both Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill being known to use standing desks throughout their careers, as well as numerous famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolfe. It also seems to have been a common occurrence throughout the Victorian era, with the BBC website noting that;
If you look at the late 19th Century, Victorian clerks could stand at their desks and moved around a lot more.
The Problems with Traditional Sitting Desks
Studies are increasingly showing that people who are sedentary throughout the day are at a higher risk of suffering from numerous health issues, even if they exercise regularly. Researchers at The American Cancer Society concluded that spending more than 6 hours per day sitting for women increase the likelihood of dying (in the next 15 years) by 37 percent, and for men 18 percent.
The Mayo Clinic has called excessive sitting on a regular basis, and the side effects that come with it, sitting disease. Whilst this sounds like a cheap marketing gimmick, the number of studies associated with this lifestyle aspect clearly reinforce the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, with some people going as far as saying that it is just as unhealthy as smoking. Whilst this comparison may be exaggerated, it is hard to deny that our habits as a sitting population should probably change, and standing at work is a great way to improve general health.
Potential health issues of excessive sitting include increased risk of fatal heart attacks, back pain, diabetes and heart disease. Obesity is also a potential health issue for sedentary people. A 2013 study has shown that a sitting person will burn around 50 fewer calories per hour than a standing person, putting a sedentary office worker at a greater risk of obesity, and the health implications that follow, if they do not adjust their calorific intake accordingly. The consequences of this difference in metabolic rate is evident in other studies as well; a study that looked at 105 full-time office workers showed that those who sat longer were about three times as likely to have a waist circumference larger than 94cm (37 inches) for men or 80cm (31 inches) for women. These same workers were also nine times more likely to have a BMI greater than 30, i.e. obese. Remember that a BMI of below 25 is considered a healthy weight, whilst a BMI of 25-29.9 is overweight, which is the weight band at which people start to suffer from negative health effects from excess weight.
Sitting at a desk for a prolonged period of time also increases the chances of repetitive strain injuries. People move around less whilst sitting, and tend to remain in the same pose for hours at a time, causing muscle stiffness and physical discomfort. In contrast, when we stand, we automatically and constantly adjust our weight distribution and balance.
Several different websites have tested standing desks, to find out if the increased productivity claim is true. They have all found mixed results. For tasks that are creative, such as writing articles or writing computer code, the writers at readwrite.com found the standing desk to get in the way of creative thought, whilst sitting allowed them to focus on their task more effectively. In more mundane tasks, they found that standing produced a sense of urgency, causing them to be more focused, and finishing the task quicker.
Using an app called Desktime, which monitors productivity and categorises it into time spent standing vs. sitting, the workers who tried out the standing desks noted that they used websites such as Spotify and Facebook less than usual, thereby reducing the time spent procrastinating. Many users also report feeling more alert and less distracted whilst standing, especially well into the afternoon, when energy levels typically drop off.
Other studies can also be applied to the theory of the standing desk. Cognitive research shows that people who are regularly active perform better throughout their lives than their peers who don’t. Finding time to stand and be active at a traditional sitting desk can take time away from work, harming productivity in the process. However, by constantly moving on the spot and shifting weight at a standing desk, activity is built into your day, reducing unnecessary time away from working. As being active helps cognitive performance in the long term, your capabilities at work should also improve.
Standing to work also seems to reduce multi-tasking. It seems that people are worse at multitasking when they are standing, but this may be a good thing. Studies have shown that people are never as productive as they anticipate when multitasking, and that it is much more effective to tackle one task at a time. Standing seems to help us to focus upon one task at a time, reducing distractions and procrastinating.
The New York-based company, Synqk, performed a one-month study of their staff’s productivity and other signals of success, as they trialled their new standing desks. Not only did their productivity increase, but staff also scored much higher on a happiness index towards the trial, suggesting that the change to standing, at least part of the time, improved their satisfaction and happiness at work. This may be because reduced back pain and other negative effects of excessive sitting were reduced.
Adjustable Height Desks
Whilst there are many fixed height standing desks available, and these are generally the cheapest option for standing desks, an adjustable desk may be the better option. These can be repositioned using either a crank handle or a motorised button, allowing the user to set the desk to suit their needs. This is ideal for shared desks, such as at home, where the users are two different heights. It is also ideal for mixing sitting and standing throughout the day, without the need for two different work spaces.
Using an adjustable desk means that the time spent sitting and standing is customisable. This allows for different tasks to be tackled in different ways, and can quickly change the feel of an environment to boost productivity.
Cost and Buying Options
There are numerous different standing desks available, as the market responds to this new trend. However, they are all more expensive than the traditional, and mass-produced, sitting desks. This increased cost may be off-putting to some employers, especially if they are seen as a remodelling expense, rather than an investment in the employees’ welfare and productivity. This may be why start-up companies and huge firms with large profits are the main purchasers at the moment.
If considering the purchase of a standing desk, shop around for the ideal one for you. This is important as it is not only a significant financial investment, but also a product you will use daily, impacting upon your work and even health. Some manufacturers offer discounts for bulk buys, which is an option for larger businesses considering making the switch to standing.
In the US, a company called Focal Upright Furniture offer full standing desk options, in two different styles. The products are expensive, with a desk starting at $1399, and additional add-ons such as flat shelves, adjustable LED work lights, as well as their new take on a semi-standing chair, are all available separately, or as a part of a larger, more expensive bundle. Focal Upright Furniture’s products are all fully adjustable, and the “chair” offers another potential solution to standing at work.
The seat is positioned to create a leaning position that is described as neither standing nor sitting. The company claims that;
your body is supported in a relaxed upright position. This award-winning ergonomic seat is designed to adjust to every move you make, while maintaining equilibrium between your back and abdominal muscles.
This improves your circulation, and;
your major muscles are relaxed yet engaged, significantly reducing the risk of “sitting disease” or the fatigue brought on by standing.
This chair may be the ideal bridge product for people who want more activity in their day, as well as improved health, without having to stop sitting completely.
In the UK, a good option for a standing desk is the VariDesk, which retails at £275 for a single desk set-up, or £295 for a slightly larger unit, which is suitable for a dual monitor set up, being slightly wider and able to bear more weight. The Varidesk options are intended for attaching to the top of a current desk, with only a five minute set-up time. Compared to buying a new desk and needing to dispose of the old desk, even if it is of good quality, this option is definitely the cheapest around, without resorting to building your own. The Varidesk set up also means that the height is completely adjustable, and can be lowered for sitting part of the time. This makes it ideal for people who do not want to sit or stand for the whole day. If standing is ideal for some tasks, whilst sitting is more suited to others, the Varidesk, and other adjustable products represent the best choice of desk. Because it can be altered to any height, it is also possible to find the best height for the individual user.
The internet has responded to the high cost of a standing desk, with numerous bloggers making their own, by customising their current desk using shelves and other accessories available fairly cheaply. A good guide to make your own on a budget is available here.
Many reviewers also recommend the use of an anti-fatigue mat, which are usually made of rubber or gel. These help to reduce leg and foot fatigue when standing for prolonged periods of time. Whilst cheaper versions are widely available, the anti-fatigue mat by Gel Pro comes highly recommended (See here), which is currently available in the US. Fatigue mats are also available from Focal Upright Furniture, and are designed to fit onto the foot hold of their chairs, or simply underneath their adjustable desks.
For UK buyers, VariDesk sell an anti-fatigue mat for around £60 (See here), and is a durable mat which cushions and supports your feet, knees, hips and back as you work. This reduces discomfort from standing for long periods. Comfortable shoes with good arch support are also a good investment for anyone considering a standing desk.
Apps For Monitoring
As with most things, there is a computer app available to help you to monitor the time spent sitting and standing at work. This is available free from Varidesk.com, and, when your weight is entered, calculates the calories burnt throughout the day sitting and standing, as well as sending your periodic reminders to change between being seated and standing. This is customisable, allowing you to set the amount of time spent sitting and standing between each reminder.
Conclusion – Should you Opt for a Standing Desk?
It seems that this trend for introducing standing desks is not going to be a passing phase. Denmark has just made it mandatory for employers to offer their staff sit-stand desks, and many large international companies renowned for their innovation are offering sit-stand desks to employees who want the option to stand.
With readwrite.com finding a clear 10% increase in productivity when using a sit-stand desk, compared to just sitting, it is clear that standing at work not only has benefits for health.