Standing Desks: Considerations to Make Them Work for You

More and more people are getting the message about how bad sitting is for you, and the fact that we sit way too much….up to 13 or more hours per day for many people. If you already have a standing desk, or if you are seriously considering one, then I presume that you are well versed in the potential advantages of standing, rather than sitting, at least for part of the day at your work station. Congratulations on your commitment to avoiding death by chair. However, standing desks are not a panacea and it is quite possible, even likely, that you will not realize all of their potential. Indeed, it is even possible that they will make things worse.

It is almost guaranteed that most people when they start out with their standing desk will experience lower leg and foot soreness and stiffness. In addition, if one of the reasons that you got your standing desk in the first place was to alleviate lower back pain, it is quite likely that standing will make it worse, or that the painful systems will develop earlier in the day.

Lower cross syndrome (LCS), or simply lower cross, is characterized by an anterior pelvic tilt (the top part of your pelvis comes forward, and a compensating lumbar hyperlordosis (your lower back curves inward more than it should). It is the result primarily of sitting too much and wearing shoes with excessively high heels. Both result in short and tight hip flexors and lower back muscles, along with the compensatory weakening and “turning off” of your abdominal, gluteus, and hamstring muscles. Unless you have trained yourself to stand with your glutes (think the forward thrust of a twerk) and your abs consciously turned on, it is more than likely that you exhibit the dysfunctional posture of LCS. So common is this that even the models at Just Stand.org trying to show how happy the world would be if we would stand at our workstations, do an even better job of demonstrating LCS.

So, how do you stand with the correct posture? For starters, I think it’s critical for most people to have some kind of foot stool, or rail that they can put one of their feet up onto. (I would argue that no standing desk is complete without one.) Ever wonder why bars (pubs) have rails? It’s because when you lift one of your legs it takes the extension load off of your lumbar vertebrae. Try it: in the process of lifting one leg to rest lightly on the rail or stool, your weight shifts to the other leg. To hold and stabilize the extra weight, you automatically tighten your butt muscles, extending your hips (the forward thrust of a twerk). Since this posture is less stressful on your legs and back, you can stand for much longer, either to work or to drink.

Another way to look at the problem is that the very tight and short hip flexors that result from sitting and contribute to LCS, make it very difficult to stand properly in the first place. It’s a vicious reinforcing feed-back where the more you sit, the harder it is to stand; therefore, the more you want to sit. Most people when they stand will habitually relax their abs and their butt, allowing the default protruding belly and excessively curved (and stressed) lower back. It takes effort to think about contracting the muscles necessary to get into proper alignment.

If your standing desk is like most and did not come with any kind of rail, any small footstool will do. Although a little shorter than what I consider optimal height, I also like using a 4 X 4 block of wood. The advantage of the shorter height is that you can place the ball of your foot on the top of the block and lower your heal. Tight and short Achilles tendons and calves are a consequence of wearing shoes with heels. The higher the heel and the more hours they are worn make for very dysfunctional movement and increase your chance for injury. Needless to say, working at a standing desk in high heels should appear to be as obviously ridiculous as it really is. If you can’t get into appropriately comfortable, low heeled shoes because “it just wouldn’t look right,” then your dysfunctions are likely not limited to only physical issues.

One thing that you should keep in mind when comparing standing and sitting, it is not the upright posture per se that is most advantageous; rather, it is the fact that standing is the first step toward walking. If you lock into position and hardly move more than you would otherwise while sitting, then you will not realize as much benefit from the switch. For instance, by bracing your wrists on the desk to stabilize yourself while typing, you can do a pretty good imitation of a statue. If you are not contracting your leg muscles, then they cannot help circulate blood and lymph up to the organs where they are processed. You can get pooling and swelling in your lower legs and ankles. Who wants to go through the effort of standing if it is going to contribute to the appearance of the dreaded cankles!

This need to move is recognized in some of the standing desks that are becoming more popular in the classroom. Some are provisioned with raised “fidget bars” where the student can discreetly move back and forth while presumably annoying classmates less. Perhaps more appropriate in an office setting are anti-fatigue mats. The softer and squishier they are, the more your leg and foot muscles have to work to constantly adjust your balance point. Try it sometime: Stand on one foot while wearing supportive shoes on a hard floor; then move to bare feet on a carpeted floor; and then, finally, try it in your bare feet on a foam kneeling pad designed to protect your knees. You will find that maintaining your balance becomes progressively more challenging. In the latter case, you will be able to feel almost every lower-body muscle desperately working to keep you from toppling over.

Finally, in the effort to just keep moving, I like to marry the use of stability (sometimes called “Swiss”) balls with the standup desk. Some workers like to sit at their desks on stability balls rather than conventional office chairs. The reasons are many, but are basically related to the reasons one might want to stand: it facilitates engaging your core stability muscles and allows you to move around. I like to stand on one leg while the shin and instep of the flexed leg rests on the ball. I then move that leg back and forth in a kind of partial backwards lunge. When the leg is back I can feel a good contraction in my glutes (make sure that your abs are turned on and tight) while the hip flexors get a good stretch. When that leg is forward and hanging more on the instep of my foot (toes pointed), I can feel a nice stretch in the top of my foot.

I’m tall enough to where I can usually get by using just a 65 cm (about 25.5”) ball by itself, although it can be a little low for sitting at some desks, and a little wide to clear the leg I’m standing on. Also, shorter people than me, and that would include the majority of women, would get more adjustability toward a custom fit with a ball chair (sometimes called a yoga ball chair). Most of these use the 55 cm ball most popular with the size of the average adult female. Well regarded yoga chairs are made by Gaiam and Isokinetics and can be purchased for about $80. With an adjustable desk where you can set the height to work sitting or standing, a ball chair can give you the best of both worlds: a better kind of chair where you can move around more than you can otherwise on a conventional chair, and a stability ball with which you can add to your movement options while standing.

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