It’s well known that sitting for long periods of time can have negative health consequences. And while standing desks are one way to mitigate the problem, they only work if you use them correctly.
We spoke to Dr. Waj Hoda, a chiropractor with Toronto health clinic Totum Life Science, to learn how to set up and use a standing desk for maximum benefit.
On your feet
Sitting for long periods is undoubtedly bad for your health: it’s been linked to neck and back pain, obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. One study cited by the Mayo Clinic found that people who routinely sit without moving for four or more hours have a 50% higher risk of death from all causes, and more than twice the risk of heart attack, compared to people who seldom sit for more than two hours at a time.
Even vigorous exercise at the end of the day can’t completely undo the damage from sitting for hours. Fortunately, there is a simple solution: move. Constantly.
“Ergonomically, the best thing you can do is keep moving,” Hoda says. “Changing positions is a healthy thing,” and the primary benefit of a standing desk is that it allows you to do just that. It shouldn’t completely replace sitting, but it can break the pattern of sitting for long intervals.
Take a test drive
Once you’ve decided to give it a try, there’s a wide range of options to choose from.
Beginners may want to try standing without committing to an expensive setup. This can be as easy as elevating your keyboard, mouse surface, and monitor above your current desk with a box, or a stack of books.
If you’re using a laptop, or if you’re able to work at multiple computers, consider setting up two separate workstations (one high, one low; they could even be side by side). A dedicated standing desk can be easily shared by multiple people, with each person using it for a few minutes at a time. A shared standing workstation doesn’t need to be fancy — no phone or filing cabinets required. Even a simple lectern will do the trick.
Calibrate your system
Like any desk, a standing desk should be ergonomically adjusted to keep your posture in best form. As Dr. Hoda explains, the usual rules apply: the top of the screen should be level with your eyes, and at arm’s length from your face.
“When you’re standing, what you want is for your elbows to be at 90 degrees, with your hands hovering right above the keyboard,” Hoda says. This means adjusting your keyboard height, not your body — if you’re not standing up straight, you may be compounding other postural problems.
“In general, when you’re looking from the side, you want your ear to fall over the middle of the shoulder, and then over the middle of the hip, over your knee, and over your ankle — a single vertical line should pass through all these bony prominences.”
But, Hoda emphasizes, even perfect posture should never remain static. “If you’re standing in a good neutral position for a while, great. But if you feel like hunching over to the left side a little bit, don’t worry — you can do that, as long as it’s for a short period of time. Just make sure your other positions are equally distributed, and you don’t hunch over to the same side all the time.”
Resting alternating feet on a footstool can help. “It takes some pressure off your lower back, and also changes positions,” Hoda says. “The common thread here is movement is good, static positions are bad.”
Work up to it
Being on your feet for long periods also places strain on the body, so a standing desk is a supplement to a regular desk, not a replacement. If your body is not accustomed to it, standing for long periods can be exhausting. “One of the problems with standing desks is that there’s no armrests,” Hoda explains, “and you want your elbows to rest on your armrests occasionally, to get a bit of a break. When your elbows don’t rest, your neck is doing a lot of work.”
Hoda recommends that the first time you use a standing desk, you limit it to 10 minutes. “And then, if you didn’t hurt from that, the next time you may want to stand for 10 minutes and then, four hours later, stand for another 10 minutes.” In this way, you can gradually work yourself up to the point where you spend between two and four hours standing in a typical eight-hour day. “You want to build yourself up,” Hoda says.
He also suggests getting a standing mat to absorb some of the impact.
Upgrade your ride
When you’re ready to make a long-term commitment to standing, it’s worth investing in a more polished adjustable-height desk. There are two main options, and your choice will depend on the type of work you’re doing.
One option is a desk with a variable-height stand to support your computer hardware, floating above a desk surface that doesn’t move — meaning your coffee cup and bobblehead collection stay put as your keyboard and monitor go up and down. There are even kits that can be added to an existing desk to retrofit it with adjustable-height hardware, which is a great option if your office is locked into a modular system that makes it impossible to switch out a single desk.
On the other hand, if your work involves a lot of collaboration, hands-on work, or poring over documents, an adjustable desk is your best bet. These usually cost a bit more, but offer the advantage of adjusting at the touch of a button: just change the setting, then watch as your entire work surface automatically changes height — saving you the effort of moving all your documents or tools to another workstation every time you want to give your thighs a break.
The Cadillac option this category is Humanscale’s Float, which offers a large surface and push-button adjustment (it’s even available with software that will remind you when it’s time to change positions). Consumer website Review.com has also tested over a dozen models and made recommendations in multiple categories, including more affordable models.