Why I Killed My Standing Desk, And What I Do Instead

Why I Killed My Standing Desk, and What I Do Instead

Standing desks may be all the rage, but they certainly have their downsides. Writer Mikael Cho explains why he ditched his standing desk, and how he combats the unhealthy side effects of sitting all day.

Illustration: Tina Mailhot-Roberge

This post originally appeared on the Crew Blog.

I was in. I always wanted a standing desk. I heard the benefits. And read the studies. The American Cancer Society tracked 123,000 people for an 18-year period and found the death rate was higher in people that sat more than six hours per day.

In another study with over 200,000 participants, researchers noted that even active people (those who exercised for at least five hours a week) had an increased risk of death if they sat longer. There was even one test done by a company that showed standing desks improved productivity by up to ten per cent.

With all of this research pointing toward the benefits of getting out of your chair, I was eager to give standing a shot. When we moved into our new office for ooomf, I created my dream workstation. The focal point would be my standing desk.

What Happened

Late one night, I finished building my standing desk. I assembled it from 22 dollars worth of IKEA parts and after I drilled the final hole, I felt like a proud new dad.

I stood working for the first time  --  an hour and half with my bare feet planted on a yoga mat. I felt strong. Powerful.

The next day I came in to the office ready for a day of standing. I stood solid for about an hour before my legs got tired. My back and shoulders started to cave in, but I fought. I squeezed my shoulder blades together, pushing against gravity  --  which now felt like a particularly powerful force.

Even though I was fighting some pain, I thought it was good pain ,  like the pain you get when you're building muscle when you workout. It felt like I was training my muscles for better posture and this was all part of the process.

After about two hours, I took a break. Sitting felt like greatest invention ever.

When I felt my legs were ready for another round, I stood up to work again. This time, however, my legs and posture started to fail within about twenty minutes. As I was standing, I couldn't help but bend over to stretch my back or lean on one leg to give my other leg a break.

I had to sit and work from my laptop for the next few hours. I was able to get up and work a bit more from my standing desk but I started to look at my standing desk differently that day. It was becoming a place where I didn't want to be rather than a place I looked forward to.

Still, I thought this was all part of the training and my body would eventually get used to it. So I continued. After two weeks, I was able to stand for about four hours a day, but I still needed to take multiple breaks. This was fine with me because I often need breaks throughout the day to refresh and maintain a good flow (and after all, having a standing desk doesn't mean you need to stand for the full 8 hours).

The problem with my standing desk, however, was it forced me to rest at times when my brain wanted to work. It was hard for me to get into a "flow" while standing.

The standing desk helped me stay focused for certain tasks like answering email (partly because I knew I could only stand for so long). But when it came to tasks that required a bit more focused thought, like writing, I was distracted. I thought more about the pain in my legs than the words I was trying to put on the page.

Even if this pain was good for me, I didn't care anymore. Thinking about the pain was impacting my work. That day, I killed my standing desk.

Although I may be missing out on the potential health and productivity benefits, a standing desk wasn't necessarily helping me do better work. And better work is the main priority for any desk I create.

When words are flowing, leg fatigue shouldn't cut a writing session short. When I'm "wired in," I don't want to have to think about the discomfort in my lower back. I just want to think about my work.

I do enjoy being active everyday. It makes me happy. And although a standing desk didn't work for me, I found there are many other effective ways to be more active during the day.

Is Sitting Really the Smoking of Our Generation?

In the last few years, several researchers have deemed that in certain ways, sitting is the smoking of our generation. This is partly due to many jobs being converted into sitting behind a screen, which means people are sitting for much longer today than they did a generation ago.

But the reality is, sitting isn't bad. It's sitting for long periods of time without movement that's the killer. In fact, staying in pretty much any position for too long isn't healthy.

In many of the studies about the negative effects of sitting, researchers are pointing toward regular physical inactivity as the problem. When we don't move, our risk of cardiovascular disease increases and our blood circulation drops along with the production of enzymes in our bodies that burn fat.

A standing desk may be one way to solve the sitting problem but it doesn't solve the inactivity problem. Standing is not necessarily better than sitting if you do it for a prolonged period of time. Sure you may burn a few more calories but standing for long stretches can lead to things like poor valve functioning in the veins in the legs (i.e. varicose veins) and pressure on the knees, reducing lubrication, which can cause tearing.

So it's not whether we sit or stand. It's about activity.

And although intense exercise can be good for your health, the baseline activity required to live a long healthy life doesn't have to be much. National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner notes, you don't have to run marathons or be a professional athlete to add quality years to your life.

Buettner and his team have been studying areas called Blue Zones, where people are leading the longest, healthy lives on the planet. The funny thing is, most of the people in these communities don't exercise in the way that we think of exercise Buettner says. They eat a plant-based diet and have a support network of people they can lean on throughout life, but they don't go to the gym. They don't hop on a treadmill. Instead, they perform regular, low intensity physical activity because of the way their lives are structured.

One community in Okinawa, Japan has one fifth the risk of colon and breast cancer and lives seven years longer than the average American. In their culture, people sit on the floor, causing them to get up and down thirty to forty times per day.

Another village in Sardinia, Italy has ten times the number of people living to over one hundred than in America. They live in vertical houses, so they must go up and down the stairs. Their land is infertile, which requires them to tend to it, requiring regular, low-intensity physical activity.

In each of these communities, walking is typically the default mode of transportation. Buettner states that walking is the only proven way to push away cognitive decline and constant, low level activity is one core factor to living a long, healthy live.

Buettner's findings have been backed up by a study done in the United States that tracked the walking behaviour of 300 participants over a 13 year period. Those who walked the most, cut their risk of potential memory problems in half. The researchers concluded that 9 miles a week was the optimal distance for neurological exercise.

If you enjoy working out or going to the gym, that's awesome. Exercise can make you stronger, happier, and add years to your life. But if you can't find time to exercise consistently or you've got injuries that prevent you from training, there are other ways to get the baseline activity level for what your body needs.

How to Not Die from Sitting Too Much

So walking is one answer to introduce more activity in your day. But sometimes you can't leave the office for a walk. Maybe the weather sucks or you've got a tight deadline and need to stay put until it's done.

Here are three simple things you can try to boost your activity when you can't leave the office:

Work with your feet up. There are ways you can design your desk to help your posture and improve your circulation even if you're sitting for most of the day. Working with your feet up while sitting has been proven to improve circulation in your legs. Research also shows that adjusting your chair to adjust to about 135 degrees reduces the pressure on your back from sitting in a chair for long periods.

Why I Killed My Standing Desk, and What I Do Instead

I've got a good chair that adjusts freely to 135 degrees and I've added a foot rest from IKEA to help with circulation in my legs:

Why I Killed My Standing Desk, and What I Do Instead

Do air squats. Air squats are one of the best ways to release enzymes that breakdown the production of fat in your body and improve circulation in your legs. Don't worry about changing into workout clothes. Do as many air squats as you can while you're waiting for the microwave or your coffee. Even the city of Sochi in Russia recognised the health benefits of air squats. When they hosted Olympics, the city offered a free train ticket in exchange for thirty air squats:

Stretch your hips. When I started training at my gym, I couldn't do a proper weighted squat. My lower back would hurt and I couldn't drop by butt lower than my knees. My trainer told me that my hips were tighter than a lid on a pickle jar.

Why? I learned that many of the muscles surrounding your hips are connected to muscle tissue in your lower back. If you're like me and have been working at a desk for a few years, the muscles in your hips are likely so tight they can create pain that resonates in your lower back.

Tight hips are often the underlying culprit leading to lower back problems and issues with mobility as we get older. One of the best ways to loosen up your hips is to stretch your hips once a day.

Kelly Starrett started one of the first Crossfit gyms in 2005. After working with tens of thousands of athletes, he noticed constant mechanical problems athletes were having when trying to do certain exercises like squatting. Starrett designed a program to hack your body's mechanics, to help the body relearn proper movement mechanics, which prevents injuries and enhances athletic performance. Here's three stretches Starrett recommends to increase hip mobility. I try to do these stretches daily. They take about three minutes a day but can help reduce the potential for back problems for life:

If a standing desk works for you, that's great. But if it doesn't, don't force it  --  especially if it negatively impacts your work. Standing while working might not be for you. It wasn't for me. And that's ok. Standing for long periods of time isn't much better than sitting anyway.

The key is to do some activity every day. It doesn't have to be a five-mile sprint. A walk to and from work, taking the stairs, or some squats while you're waiting for your lunch can be enough to do the trick.

Why I Killed My Standing Desk [Crew Blog]

Mikael Cho is the co-founder of Crew, a creative marketplace connecting mobile & web projects with vetted, handpicked developers and designers. Mikael writes more posts on psychology, startups and product marketing over on the Crew blog. Find him on Twitter @mikaelcho.


    A standing desk may be one way to solve the sitting problem, but it doesn’t solve the inactivity problem.Actually yes it does...! Because you are constantly adjusting yourself to the correct stance. particularly at first, until your muscles get used to it, which doesn't take that long. But you have to give it time to work, Mikael seems to have given up way too soon. Don't blame the standing desk, blame your lack of patience, no doubt weak muscles and probably laziness.Standing is not necessarily better than sitting if you do it for a prolonged period of time. Sure you may burn a few more calories but standing for long stretches can lead to things like poor valve functioning in the veins in the legs (i.e. varicose veins) and pressure on the knees, reducing lubrication, which can cause tearing.This is a complete load... I've been using a standing desk now for several years, I can't sit in front of my PC anymore, it's too uncomfortable. I found that my back no longer aches, my legs no longer cramp up, and I don't get so tired during the afternoon. As for poor valve function.. where did you get that information..? I'd like to see a study that shows this..! Fair enough, if you're not the fittest or strongest you can be, a standing desk is tough, at first... you then get used to it and your body will be better for it. I personally would rather rely on the many studies showing that a standing desk will save your life...!

    As for the down vote from "maelstrom" have you actually given it a try...? if so what was your problem..? Because somehow I doubt you tried very hard, or was it just a vindictive vote as usual...?

    Last edited 25/04/14 10:04 am

      I sit at a desk for long periods most days and I don't get a sore back, cramped legs nor get tired during the afternoon. Standing desks will work for some people, they won't work for others as the author points out. It's a bit sad that evangelical fanboism now encompasses how you work at a desk.

        evangelical fanboismThe author of that post quit way too early to have a real subjective insight into the value of standing desks, and I suspect many people will be the same. You have to give it a bit more than a week, and you need to take it seriously as an alternative to sitting. Those studies on the benefits of standing as apposed to sitting aren't just blowing smoke up 'yer shirt, they are based on empirical studies over a period of time... If you are happy to sit that's your decision, but please don't discourage other people from at least giving it a good crack. The other issue here is the design of the actual desk itself, most that I see, have the keyboard on the same base as the monitor. It needs to be at the same height as your elbows, and the monitor needs to be so that you can look directly ahead not down or up.

    You really need a desk that allows you to both stand and sit depending on how you feel.

    At work I've setup a standing desk which I use for most of the day. When I get tired I use a raising chair that allows me to still sit at a good height with my desk....my desk isn't adjustable.

    You just need to find a happy medium.

    I was the first one to setup a desk in my office. Since then two others now have it and several other people have made comments. It's catching on :)

      Like one of these

      or a kangaroo

      Those are the only things that will get me into using a standing desk

        The Kangaroo looks quite good, but the other has the issue of the keyboard being at the same level as the monitor, which is an issue. I built my own and the first thing I thought of, was to put the keyboard at elbow height. The monitor is at an angle where I don't have to look down or up.

          but isnt that the same as a regular desk thats why you have monitor arms/raisers (or in my case some plastic tubs).

          Not having used a standing desk i dont know for sure but i would think that the height difference between keyboard and monitor really shouldn't change much if at all between sit and stand (but having a keyboard section that can manually be adjusted for those that find they have to adjust it would have been a good idea).

            The problem is that if the monitor is at the correct height for you to look straight at it, not up or down, then it is going to be too high for the keyboard. Most monitors don't have much movement at all, let alone adjust high enough, to stop you looking up or down at it, which is bad for your neck. Next time you sit at your desk, look at the relative height of your elbows. Your forearms should be horizontal, and you shouldn't be looking down at the monitor. Correct posture is important, whether sitting or standing...

            Last edited 27/04/14 11:55 am

              I agree with that (as i recall the center of the screen should actually be where your fingers are if you extend your arm straight).

              But if your sitting or standing, the distance from top of keyboard to bottom of monitor should be about the same perhaps the keyboard could be a cm or 2 lower (than it is in relation to your shoulders) when your standing, so the monitor height should already be adjust to be perfect by use of phonebooks, boxes. various ikea hacks to add another shelf area etc (because yes, i dont see many monitors that can be raised high enough on its own stand)

    Interesting article ... reflected at my office. We recently moved into a purpose-built open-plan. And new desks were installed which can change height for standing or sitting.

    Within the first week or so a team of OHS people went round doing ergonomic assessments on everyone. Their mantra seemed to be that we should all be standing up and many people went with their advice.

    It's not much more than a month later and all the standing desks are back to sitting height again.

    Somewhat contrary to the fancy desks, the new office also came with some very un-ergonomic chairs which aren't that comfortable to sit in for long. Presumably the standing-up-is-good-for-you enthusiasts didn't think we would be using them and cheaped out.

    Well he's onto something. It is about the hip-trunk angle, and not about the activity since the "sitting is the new smoking" meme is utter hogwash. Sitting at 90 degrees is a back killer, but not an overall health killer generally. But a bad back certainly allows for the degrading of your overall health as its effect manifest. And standing too much can give you vericose veins, though as another commenter said above, I shift a lot naturally while at a standing desk.

    But I use a "standing desk" with a high saddle stool. I keep my desk at about 42" always. I alternate between the saddle stool, which gives me the 135 degree angle (which is the key thing !!!!!!!!!!! and doesn't make you sleepy like a leaned back reclining position does), and standing. When sitting I often clench stool between my thighs for exercise and isometric work. It's surprisingly natural. It also keeps the pressure off my pelvic floor since I don't have one of the expensive split ones. And when I'm "standing" I usually have a knee propped up on the stool. It is such a relaxing position and I stretch my hips almost unconsciously. I also put up my legs and read at lunch hour to allow the blood to flow back up. That is nirvana for me and I've been doing it for a few years.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now