Thinking on your feet: practical suggestions for creating and using a standing workstation

You know how when people give you bad news they ask “Are you sitting down?”

Since I’m going to give you some good news in this post, I ask you now as you are reading this, are you standing up?

We are constantly bombarded with news stories about what is bad for us. Some of these things are obvious such as smoking and a bacon-only diet, but others fly under the radar. A good example is sitting.

There have been a lot of headlines recently on this issue:  “Sitting is bad for you” and in fact, “it might even be fatal“.

The good news is that there is a seemingly simple solution to this health problem that allows you to keep eating your bacon: stand up!

For a few weeks now I have been doing an experiment on myself (yes, I know, us scientists are not supposed to do that) such that I have switched from a sitting work station to a work station where I can either sit or stand (see pic below), and I’ve been standing almost all day every day.

How’s is this experiment going?

I will fill you in, but first, some brief background.

The case against sitting is very convincing and now includes scientific studies. By sitting, here we are talking about sitting for 8 or 10 hours every day, for example at work behind a desk. Sitting for a few minutes is not going to hurt you, unless it is in the electric chair.


So what’s so bad about sitting?

“Sitting down on the job”, as the expression goes, is not just frowned upon by some bosses, but also it apparently changes your body in dramatic ways. Sitting for hours every day increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, heart disease, Type II Diabetes, obesity and just general mortality, and these increases are surprisingly large and statistically significant. For example, those sitters who sit the most hours a day have an up to 40% increased mortality over 15 years. That’s a big deal, probably similar to smoking.

By sitting you use approximately 1 calorie less per minute (of course this depends on the person’s age, sex, weight, etc) than you would use by standing.  Big deal, 1 calorie, right?  But wait, over a 10-hour day (yeah most scientists work 10-12 hours a day), that’s a whopping 600 calories a day difference.

Remarkably, sitting even increases mortality amongst those in very top physical shape. In fact, sitting is an independent risk factor for all kinds of bad health outcomes no matter how much you exercise.

Evolution did not design humans to sit. Our bodies are constructed to either walk, stand, or lie down, but not sit, at least not in the way we sit almost immobile in an office chair. When we sit as we do at a desk in an office, our bodies are not happy and if we do this for perhaps one-third or half of the day, our bodies might start to change in unhealthy ways.

One lady I used to know 10 years ago told me, and she was not joking, that she had “office butt” (i.e. a very large, flat bottom)  from sitting down all day every day at work. She shrugged as though there was nothing she could do to escape this fate.

At the time I have to admit I just shook my head at her “confession”, but more recently it dawned on me that even though you may not be able to see it, if you sit in your office for 8-10 hours every day, you might not only increase your risk of “office butt” but also of “office heart”, “office pancreas”, “office brain”, etc.

What’s the alternative to sitting and increasing your risk of getting all those nasty health changes, you might ask?

Instead of sitting, for many jobs you can do the same thing but standing up….at least in theory.

It was based on this theory that I crafted my experiment to work standing up at a standing workstation. Of course I am not the first one to think of this idea and many people are already spending the day working standing up. In fact it was my friend and colleague Professor Anna, who started working standing up years ago because it made her back feel better, who inspired me. So far, my experience has been very positive and it really feels like a dramatic change. If you think about it, spending even “just” 8 hours standing versus 8 hours sitting, and doing this day-in and day-out for long periods of time is an extremely drastic change in your life.

This is particularly true if you have been sitting at work most of the day for years on end.

When I converted to a standing workstation that you see above, at first I found it distracting. I asked myself, worryingly, “Could it be that I am one of those people who cannot ‘think on their feet’?”

Thankfully after only an hour or so I was completely concentrating on my work with no distraction from standing. In fact, I felt more alert and focused. However, eventually my legs and especially my feet started hurting a few hours into this experiment. Imagine standing in one of those long lines at Disneyland…after a while, your feet get tired even if you have Splash Mountain to look forward to ahead of you. Imagine standing in that line for 10 hours and you don’t even get to go on a fun ride?

I thought I might avoid this problem with my feet by being proactive. In front of my standing workstation I had placed a supportive fatigue-reducing mat. Check one. In addition, I had gotten some of those Dr. Scholl’s “are you gel’ing?” inserts for my shoes. Check two.

So I thought I was pretty smart, and I’m sure these things helped a lot and I would strongly recommend them if you are converting to a standing work station, but even so, my feet hurt.  This was not that surprising considering I have spent years at work sitting down. Now I was standing up for hours at a time. Duh, your feet are going to hurt and so are your legs.

My solution to the feet problem, take a break and sit down for a while.  I was fortunately able to create a dual workstation where I can stand or sit at my desk. So I started mixing it up. Some standing and some sitting. I would highly recommend this, especially at the beginning. I think the change from an entirely sitting work life to an entirely standing work life is just too extreme for most people. You have to adjust over time.

Happily, after a few days of standing most of the time while working (with some sitting mixed in ) my feet started hurting less. Even now they still ache a bit some days for the last few hours of the day, but there was a major improvement over time. So if you convert to a standing workstation, expect some discomfort. It’s really not that surprising given the big change you are undertaking.

I also found that static standing was not going to work. You cannot simply stand mostly still and work. What is a far more effective approach is to be standing and to slightly move around. Shift side to side, back to front, even walk in place, and your legs, feet, and back all feel much happier.

It’s critical to make sure that your standing work station is ergonomic such that your eyes are in the right place for your monitor and your hands for your keyboard. I’ve been making some tweaks, but my standing workstation still is not 100% perfect.

The other consideration is of course whether your work place, workstation, and boss will allow for you to switch to working standing up, but if these are not obstacles, then I would suggest giving it a try if your job normally keeps you sitting most of the day. If your job already involves standing, walking, etc. and not just sitting the whole day, perhaps you are already all set anyway and no change is needed.

Standing during most or all of the workday is not for everyone and you might want to talk to your doctor and your company’s ergonomics experts first before making such a seemingly simple, yet drastic change in your life.  I’ll keep you posted on how I’m doing standing. Every day I am a little more used to it so I’m optimistic about sticking with it…and to be honest, I think the human brain works better when standing up!

1 thought on “Thinking on your feet: practical suggestions for creating and using a standing workstation”

  1. How about placing a running treadmill in front of the desk and setting it to low speed? 🙂

    Seriously, though: this is what I truly admire about science. It’s the never-ending pursue of better solutions, even if what one’s trying to improve seems trivial. Congratulations on your experiment!

    Although I can’t stand at work, I’ve recently got a new chair which a coil spring instead of a stiff vertical piston below my butt. The difference is just amazing, however I must look funny doing work and swaying from side to side at the same time 🙂

    Best of luck!

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