What’s the deal with standing desks?

Old school.
Old school.

In a dramatic break from convention, we’ll give you the conclusion upfront: standing desks aren’t necessarily better than humble sitting desks, but they can be, depending on how you use them. It’s all up to you, really. Here’s the research:

1. The health claims made by standing desk proponents have been wildly exaggerated

From being the newest miracle weight-loss tool, to lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, stress, and generally making you an awesome person, there’s been a lot of hype around the health benefits of standing desks. Unfortunately, most of it is just that — hype.

Cholesterol and blood pressure are extremely complicated conditions, with genes, food, and overall lifestyle playing huge roles. So, unless standing desks are used as part of a holistic plan, which includes much bigger changes like giving up smoking, red meat, excessive salt, and exercising at least 150 minutes a week, the desk probably isn’t going to make much of a dent in either condition.

As far as weight loss goes, standing has been shown to burn marginally more calories than sitting. But the difference is only 8 calories an hour (that’s like burning an orange after standing for 8 hours). The most effective way to lose weight is simply to move around a lot more. So, a 15 minute walk around the block, a yoga session a couple of times a week, or just taking the stairs instead of the elevator will do more for your waistline than the standing desk.

Additionally, a recent study published in the journal Ergonomics found that prolonged standing not only increased physical discomfort, but also hampered mental performance.

There might, however, be a placebo effect with standing desks. You intuitively feel that you must be doing something right by not sitting for 8–12 hours a day, and the powerful effects of placebos have been well documented. However, if you’re relying solely on mind-over-matter to derive value out of your standing desk, may we suggest you look into yoga balls and walking desks. Research on these are equally scant, but they both already look more awesome than merely swopping standing for sitting.

2) An ergonomic setup can be achieved by both sitting and standing desks

Are you joining the foot soldiers of the standing desk revolution?
Are you joining the foot soldiers of the standing desk revolution?

Keeping your body comfortably positioned while you work keeps you healthy and injury-free, and more productive. The basic principle is to keep all parts in a neutral position, without causing strain. So, having the monitor or screen placed where your eyes would naturally rest if your neck is not craned up or down; having your arms and wrists rested and your shoulders relaxed; and having your legs comfortably underneath you without straining your back.

Many people have terrible posture while sitting, hunching their shoulders or leaning too far forward or back in the chair. And many of these people will put up with this for years, causing anything from severe grumpiness during the work day to nerve damage in the back, legs, and wrists. The benefit of standing desks is that you’ll fatigue more quickly, which will encourage you to do something about an un-ergonomic setup, or better yet, take a break and move around. You’ll generally need a break much sooner if you’re standing than sitting, and if your shoulders aren’t comfortable, you won’t have the option of leaning into the seatback and soldiering on.

So, while it’s perfectly possible to be perfectly comfortable at either a sitting or standing desk, the latter might be better for spotting areas of concern.

3) An ergonomic setup doesn’t have to cost a fortune

You don’t need to raid the penny jar to create a comfortable work environment.
You don’t need to raid the penny jar to create a comfortable work environment.

Both professionally-designed ergonomic sitting and standing workstations can be extremely costly. With a single chair or desk costing in the region of $2000, that could be the rent for an entire office. The benefits of an expensive piece of equipment is the individualisation options it provides. Anything from the height of the armrest, to the softness of the seat, to the angle of the screen can be adjusted for your comfort and convenience. And, since we all spend much too much time working, we’re all behind comfort and convenience. However, we would argue that once you understand the simple principles behind ergonomics (see point 2 above), you can cobble together DIY solutions that achieve much the same effect. Work screens propped up with books, a few judiciously placed cushions on chairs, wrist rests when working with the mouse, and most importantly, regular breaks for moving about, will all keep you healthy and productive.

If you do feel a professionally-designed setup is the only way to go, our advice is: get your money’s worth. Make sure you’ve gotten the consultant to take you through every function, or read every chapter in your instruction manual. Make sure you understand what each fiddly knob does, and how it’s supposed to add to your comfort and convenience. And make sure you’re there enough to use it. For freelancers, or people who travel frequently and are never at the same place, consider whether the costs are worth it.

As we stated upfront, standing desks may be better than sitting desks, depending on how you use them. But nothing beats staying active during the work day, and generally living a healthy lifestyle. And if you want to chat to an ergonomics expert to help you improve your current setup, or you need a physiotherapist or kinesiologist to help you with a current health issue, log into Kalido, and find a specialist in your area now.