Why Use a Standing Desk?

I’m going state something considered heresy among ergonomics aficionados these days.  A standing desk will not, in itself, improve your posture, cardiac health, strength, or any other health-related metric.  In fact, if used improperly, a standing desk can lead to joint problems, back problems and other injuries.  That’s because a standing desk is not a medical device.  It is a tool that can be used properly or improperly.  When used properly, it can provide a number of health benefits, but only if used properly.

The Problem With Sitting

In order to understand what that means, it is worth considering the problems that standing desks seek to address and the ways in which a standing desk can help address those problems.  I’ve written extensively about why sitting for long periods of time is bad for you.  In short, the body tends to adapt the positions and movement patterns that it encounters most frequently.  If you were to only train your right arm, for instance, you might expect your right arm to grow stronger than your left arm.  Similarly, if you spend all of your time sitting, it is not surprising that the body will begin to “adapt” to sitting.

Sitting for long periods of time primarily impacts your health in two ways .  First, sitting can negatively impact cardiac health.  Too much sitting is directly linked to heart disease and other circulatory issues.  Second, sitting can promote unhealthy muscle imbalances.  Because a chair supports a portion of your body weight, muscles that might be activated while standing can grow weak while sitting.  In addition, the sitting position itself tends to shorten muscles which are tied to joints that are put in flexion.  The lower back, glutes, hip flexors, abs and obliques tend to be most impacted.  These muscle imbalances can result in what I call computer hunch, a head forward slouching position that rounds out the top of the back and tends to reinforce an anterior pelvic tilt:

Computer Hunch

Computer Hunch

Standing Desks Can Improve Cardiovascular Health

Standing desks can promote activities that counteract the biggest risks of sitting all day at work.  In terms of cardiac health, a number of recent studies have shown that the fundamental problem with desk work is that it involves a lack of movement for most of the body.  Even small movements throughout the day can go a long way towards counteracting a sedentary job.

So the thinking goes that, by standing at work, you are more likely to fidget or make so-called “micro-movements,” thereby keeping your muscles active.  You might take a quick walk to the water cooler or take a sales call while walking around the office rather than staying at your desk.  These small breaks and movements can make a huge difference.  In fact, several studies have shown exercise is not nearly as important as continual movement throughout the day.  According to researchers at the University of Toronto, chances of dying of heart disease or cancer were more or less the same between those who exercised regularly and those who did not.  Indeed, the evidence seems to suggest that while exercise is important, we also need to stay mobile throughout the day, even while performing non-aerobic activities.

But… and this is a BIG but… standing all day is also not particularly good for you.  According to Cornell University, standing can actually be bad for those already prone to certain types of heart disease.  It is also linked to an increased likelihood of developing varicose veins.  Furthermore, it requires more energy to stand than to sit, about twice as much according to Time Magazine.  While burning calories can be a good thing for those who are overweight, if it comes at the cost of additional fatigue at work, it can negatively impact fine motor skills and concentration.

Standing Desks Can Improve Posture

We know that sitting reinforces computer hunch, but does standing help?

It turns out that standing desks can help counteract muscle imbalances, if used properly.  Remember that when using a standing desk, it is important to still focus on proper standing desk posture.  That is, one must still work to maintain neutral arms, neck and back when working at a standing desk.  The problem is that moving to a standing desk places new stresses on the muscles that may have become weak from sitting.

Proper Standing Posture

How to stand up straight when using a standing desk.

If you make the transition to a standing desk cold-turkey, the result may be injury rather than improved posture.  In fact, as the muscles that are critical for proper standing posture grow tired, one is likely to slouch or lean on the desk, which can actually reinforce the very problems the standing desk seeks to counteract.

So What Then?

All this seems to point to the fundamental truth that there is no silver bullet for us lowly office workers.  A standing desk is a tool that can encourage more variety in your day.  Indeed, the most recent studies seem to show that variety is actually the key.  A variety of working positions and movement throughout the day is what we really seek.

By avoiding any particular work setting or movement pattern, we can avoid developing muscle imbalances in the first place.  Or, if that’s not possible, it may be possible to counteract patterns developed at work, by strengthening the anti-patterns in the gym.  By moving around, even in small ways, we can counteract the negative impacts of sitting on cardiovascular health.

So in short, try to move around as much as you can.  And the best part… you don’t necessarily need a brand new $2000 standing desk to do so.  Go on a walk.  Take a break every now and then.  Shift around from your desk to the couch to the counter top.  Basically, do what our ancestors have done for millions of years.  That’s it!

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