All Rise: Is a Stand-Up Desk in Your Future?

The health risks of prolonged sitting are well-documented. An adjustable standing desk is the ideal solution for busy entrepreneurs.
Freelance Writer, Self-employed
August 21, 2012

Sitting at your desk all day, whether you like to or not, is bad for your health as well as your productivity. That’s what research is saying, which is supporting a boom in the sales of stand-up desks. According to Businessweek, sales of desks that require the user to stand up are growing at several times the rate of regular desks.

A Growing Trend

The idea for the stand-up desk isn't new; history features many prominent stand-up desk users from Thomas Jefferson to Winston Churchill and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. However, the trend is catching on as more people, and studies, showcase the benefits—health and productivity—of working while standing rather than sitting.

A regular desk's surface is 27 inches to 30 inches from the floor, which requires you to sit down when you’re working. A growing body of evidence shows that long periods of sitting inhibits circulation and flexibility and discourages calorie expenditure and weight loss.

A recent study from Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says that by reducing excessive sitting to less than three hours a day, one can add an estimated two years to their life expectancy. Numerous other studies have shown that too much sitting increases the risk of dying from heart disease, cancer and other ailments.

If you think your stints at the gym innoculate you against what’s being called “sitting disease,” think again. Researchers have found that dedicated exercise sessions won’t completely counteract the ill effects of long periods of sitting. Rather, some suggest that repeated brief periods of moderate exercise, such as standing while working, may be even better than extended intensive workouts.

Walk and Work

For the last three years Catrine Tudor-Locke, an investigator in the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Louisiana State University, has been using a desk that not only requires her to stand up, but has a treadmill attached to it. Tudor-Lock walks at a speed of up to 2 miles per hour for about two to three hours of each workday. Her conclusion: She’d rather stand up than sit down, any day.

Tudor-Locke's "desk" is a Steelcase Walkstation, which combines an electrically-adjusted desk with a treadmill mounted perpendicular from the work surface so the user can walk, talk, type and perform other office functions simultaneously. The Walkstation includes such specific design touches as a rubber-edged work surface to keep you from walking into a hard corner.

The similar Sit-to-Walkstation allows the user to sit as well as stand and walk. Neither is bargain-priced, with the Walkstation starting at $4,399 and the Sit-to-Walkstation starting at $4,799. (If that blows your budget, Tudor-Locke says one of her office colleagues gets by with a table leaf balanced on the arms of a treadmill brought from home.)

Stand-up desks sans treadmill are more affordable. Ergo Depot has a line that adjusts from sitting height to standing height with the help of an electric motor, starting at $580. Steelcase’s $1,499 Airtouch stand-up work surfaces adjust from 26 inches—seated height—to a stand-up height of 43 inches without the use of electricity. Buddy Products makes a line of non-adjustable stand-up workstations available for as little as about $200.

To Sit or Not to Sit?

Despite the intuitive appeal of the idea that standing is healthier than sitting, the evidence isn't all there. “The definitive study hasn’t been funded and implemented,” says Tudor-Locke. “But everything suggests that you burn more calories when standing or walking.”

Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that standing all day, every day, isn't good for you either. Even an evangelist like Tudor-Locke can't argue with that. “Personally, from my point of view, I’m not able to walk for 8 hours a day,” she says. “My feet get tired.”

Case studies of adjustable standing desk usage isn't encouraging. While workers initially are enthusiastic about them, over time they perform more and more work seated and eventually tend to stop working at stand-up height at all. Given the added cost, still-uncertain benefits and difficulty getting people to use them, there are legitimate questions about whether and how to introduce stand-up desks to a workplace.

Workplace Integration

If you want to try stand-up adjustable desks at your workplace, rather than giving every employee one, purchase a limited number to use as shared workstations. Tudor-Lock suggests starting with a pool of shared desks that everyone can use for 45 minutes twice a day. Providing access to stand-up desks and supporting people to use them may be the best way to go, she says. “We’re not going to dictate what they must do because sometimes their work requires them to do something else,” she notes.

Indeed, not all work is suitable for stand-up. While talking on the phone generally works well, Tudor-Locke says she needs a speakerphone to walk while conversing. Her typing speed is slower while walking, and she says she isn’t as effective using a mouse. For some work, such as flipping through piles of papers, she prefers to be seated.

All told, the stand-up desk’s position right now is as a promising, if not quite yet proven, way to build your business while maintaining or improving your health—and possibly even extending your life.

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