Is Standing Up the Best Move You Can Make at Work?

Are we at a standing desk tipping point? (Getty Image)
Anyone who works in a large office has probably noticed colleagues' heads popping up over cubicle dividers like mushrooms sprouting as more and more employees are switching to standing desks (
or jerry-rigging their current regular desks into standing versions). The trend started a few years ago with mainly geeky tech types touting the benefits of standing at work, and offering their DIY desk hacks online. Standing desks soon became more mainstream after a number of studies showed the dire health consequences of being a couch—or an office chair—potato. Sure, we've all heard that our modern, sedentary lifestyle has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, but one of the most surprising bits of research showed that regular vigorous exercise, long assumed to be a cure for the common office job, barely mitigated the health risks of sitting for long periods.

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This week, diet and exercise app developer Arshad Chowdhury, 37, posted a blog that may be the standing desk tipping point. It's been liked on Facebook nearly 2,000 times and picked up by major news outlets such as Fox and the Daily Mail. "What Happens When You Stand for 2 Years" outlines Chowdhury's experience using a standing desk for about 10 hours a day with only short breaks to "nap, eat, or meditate."

(courtesy Arshad Chowdhury)(courtesy Arshad Chowdhury)

"I started out of curiosity," Chowdhury told Yahoo Shine. A couple of years ago he noticed that a number of colleagues at his shared workspace were starting to use standing desks. "It looked fun, they seemed to be more engaged with their work...I didn't realize until later a lot of the health benefits related to the standing desk. The first thing I noticed was my chronic back pain went way."

In the blog, he describes how his posture also improved, and his legs gained muscle mass. While he had a few doubts and was concerned he might develop some aches and pains, feel tired, or lose concentration from standing all day, none of those things actually happened. His blog concludes, "Overall, it has been wonderfully positive. After two years of doing it, I still heartily recommend a standing desk." He even recommends an affordably priced laptop stand.

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Which is one of the reasons Dr. Alan Hedge, PhD, an ergonomics professor at Cornell University, is slightly more skeptical about the whole fad. "It's a great new fashion for the furniture industry," Hedge told Yahoo Shine. "They can make a lot of money out of it," but, he added, "The evidence that they have amazing effects is just not there."

Hedge warned that before you run out and buy a standing desk, you should be aware of the potential downside. "Absolutely there are risk factors with standing all day. The good news is that it burns more calories–about 20 percent. The bad news is, that are cardiovascular risks, since the heart has to pump blood harder, and there is a significant increase in varicose veins, especially for women." He also pointed out that you need to be aware of your floor surface and invest in supportive footwear to avoid straining your musculoskeletal system.

What many standing desk advocates may not realize is that the counterpoint to sitting still is moving, not standing. "Staying in any one position is not good for the body," said Hedge. "If you hold a muscle in the same position, it's very fatiguing. Muscles need a good supply of blood, which you won't get unless you are moving."

"The key is to not sit for longer than an hour at a time and if you can, take a break every 20 minutes. You'll see dramatic results in terms of musculoskeletal pain, and also work productivity." Hedge described his own routine as a mix of sitting to do computer work, walking while on the phone or thinking, and standing to teach class.

He doesn't reject standing desks altogether. If you want to try one, he suggests using a standing/sitting desk with a high chair and foot bar, and alternate standing, sitting, and moving. Don't lean into your desk when standing (a common posture issue) and make sure you are reading at about eye level, whether you're standing or sitting.

While he advocates using a standing desk, Chowdhury (who said he was surprised at the popularity of this particular blog post) also agreed with Hedge on the benefits of moderation. "Doing too much of anything always has some negatives," he acknowledged. "The healthiest approach involves frequent breaks and going for a walk." Another recommendation? This dedicated stander is committed to a 20-minute nap each day, and even invented a space-age-looking napping chair called the MetroNap EnergyPod: "The future of work is going to be in front of computers and we have to figure out a way to do that in a way that makes us healthy and happy."

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