Career

The Truth About Standing Desks, From Someone Who’s Used One For Years

I started writing at a makeshift standing desk in 2013, perching my laptop on top of a pile of books. This precarious set-up was one of absolute necessity, based on personalised medical advice, but it lined up with a succession of headlines about the short and long term benefits of standing up to work. There was plenty of discussion about this trend. Articles listed the companies that installed standing desks, like Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Studies verifying the health problems associated with sedentary work. Road-testers noted how hard standing actually was, many giving up fairly quickly. So, how do you make it work for you?

People Are Going To Make It About Them

Standing up to work generates a lot of opinions. People are going to look at you, and ask questions (some more rudely than others). Many are curious, others sceptical, and some completely bewildered why I would give up my chair. Occasionally, a person will get noticeably indignant, as if by standing I am personally offending them. Yes, it is unusual. Yes, I generally would prefer to slouch into a chair (especially after lunch, when I’m usually ready for a tiny nap). But I have become used to it, and so have the people that I’ve worked with. Not just that, I actually like it.

Science Is On Your Side

Sitting is slowly killing you. Dramatic? Yes. But the poor health outcomes of sitting for long periods have been widely investigated. Studies reveal that a sedentary increases the risk of developing conditions such as type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. By standing up more, you can lower your chance of contracting these diseases (emphasis on lower). “But I go to the gym!” or “I always take the stairs!”, you are protesting. Sorry to give you some very disappointing news, but even if you exercise regularly; this activity will not offset the harm caused by sitting. The average office worker will be seated for an astonishing 80,000 hours over their working life, which will very likely reduce their life expectancy.

Let me cheer you up with some of the positive aspects of why you should stand, rather than why you should not sit. If you do it right, you can lessen the pain you might not even realise you get from sitting, especially in your back and neck. You will burn more calories. Also, a recent study shows that standing increases productivity. I have found that it stimulates creativity and also stops me getting distracted. I feel more alert, present and engaged. I like that I can fidget, wander and occasionally dance like nobody’s watching (when I’m at home and there definitely is nobody watching).

How To Do It

There are some very expensive ergonomic adjustable desks that allow for a combination of sitting and standing, and if you can access one of these, fantastic. But this might not be possible. Especially if you are just trying it out, I found you can easily convert a regular desk using boxes or even piles of those glossy coffee table books that are gathering dust. One clever colleague admitted that he regularly moves his laptop to his filing cabinet and works from there.

If I’ve convinced (or maybe terrified) you into considering trying out a standing desk, you must do it properly. Safety first, friends. First up, consult an infographic like this one, which demonstrates your ideal set-up. Aim for a posture worthy of the fanciest finishing school. Book balanced on head optional.

  • Set your screen at eye level, so you can look straight ahead, with no strain on your neck.
  • Shoulders should be pulled back and down, so no more slouching over the keyboard
  • Elbows and forearms should be parallel to the floor and wrists flat
  • Knees should be unlocked
  • Set feet shoulder-width apart

Remember to regularly shift positions, including moving to a chair – the aim is to lessen sitting time, not standing exclusively. And start out slow – it might take you a while to get used to it, so probably don’t try to stand for ten hours on the first day. You can also use some sort of a cushioning mat to offset the ache you will get in your heels ankles or knees, especially if you have hard flooring. Obviously, you’ll be most comfortable in supportive shoes, so swap your heels for something sturdier (keep these under your desk for a quick switch). If you work at home (or have a very friendly workplace), I find going barefoot is great.

Whether you work in a corporate office or at home in your pyjamas, using a standing desk can improve your short and long term health, increase your productivity and encourage creativity – provided you do so properly. If it improves your life, even a little, it’s worth doing.


Kate Robertson is a cultural critic who has written about arts and culture for publications like The Atlantic, Vice, Marie Claire.