Use a Stand-Up Desk to Boost Your Health

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Several MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors enjoy the benefits of standing up on the job, using wooden stands to elevate computers on their traditional office desks.
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This stand-up desk built by the author to use in her home includes wall-mounted adjustable shelves.
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This mobile standing workstation is made from an audiovisual cart that’s outfitted with a keyboard tray.

Many of us are far too inactive. We start our days seated for the morning commute, transition to sitting at the office all day long, plop down again to ride home, and then relax by sitting in front of the television. The afflictions of a sedentary lifestyle have been well-researched. What countermeasures might help? One is to work at a stand-up desk that can improve brain and heart function and lessen back pain — in short, offer better all-around health. And you don’t have to buy expensive commercial furniture: We’ve pulled together do-it-yourself solutions to the sitting desk problem in this article, and in “More DIY Stand-Up Desks.”

The Problem with Sitting

Considered from an evolutionary perspective, sitting all day is an unnatural state for Homo sapiens. “The workplace sitting desk is the antithesis of our native habitat,” says environmental journalist Richard Manning. “The human species derives much of its refinement, advantage and ability — especially its big brain — from the basic fact that we are upright, agile apes.”

In his recent book, Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind From the Afflictions of Civilization, Manning makes a strong case for movement as the quickest path to brain and body health. A mountain of research points to inactivity as a contributing factor to our most chronic disorders, among them obesity, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, cancer and asthma. Our sedentary lifestyle has even been implicated in causing reduced brain function.

Much of what we know about the consequences of being sedentary comes from studies that have examined television viewing. Recent research has confirmed what the TV-watching studies show: We burn more calories when we don’t sit — to the tune of hundreds per day. Barry Braun, professor of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University, says a person would have to replace about four hours of sitting with standing to gain the benefits of a 30-minute walk. Nevertheless, there may be orthopedic and postural benefits to standing aside from the caloric expenditure. Engaging our muscles and increasing blood flow by standing up can result in better muscle tone; improved blood sugar, circulation and posture; reduced injuries resulting from tight muscles; elevated cognition; and enhanced mood. Just by standing, a body’s metabolism becomes remarkably more effective.

Setting Up a Standing Workstation

Depending on your budget, the kind of work you do and your inclination toward DIY projects, you have many stand-up desk options. Ready-made choices range from treadmills with attached computers to adjustable-height desks and extra-tall desks.

When I began to look for stand-up desks a few years ago, I found, to my dismay, that many sleek options cost upward of $1,000. Eventually, I came across a $150 bright yellow, portable cart for audiovisual equipment, retrofitted with a keyboard tray. I consulted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommendations for ergonomic workstations, and I learned that the top of a computer screen should be located at or just below eye level, with the keyboard positioned at about elbow level. Because my laptop setup didn’t meet those guidelines, I bought a separate keyboard so I could adjust its height, and so I could add a stack of books underneath my laptop to raise the screen to the appropriate height.

I began reaping the benefits immediately. I’d describe the feeling of working from a stand-up desk as being activated — like having a “be present” switch turned on in my head. I also find that standing makes me more likely to walk around and be more active overall.

I used the AV cart as my desk for a couple of years, until my partner opted to try a standing workstation as well, and agreed to design an even better one for me. The result is an adjustable standing desk that’s wall-mounted. We decided to use extra-long wall brackets so the larger of the two work surfaces could be lowered enough to be a table for our toddler.

If you’re not in a position to create a standing workstation from scratch, you can retrofit a traditional desk to become a stand-up desk, which is what several of my colleagues at Mother Earth News have done. Their innovation consists of stands to hold their monitors, plus a stand for the keyboard and mouse. What makes the stands especially useful, says Managing Editor Jennifer Kongs, are their large openings that function as bookshelves and the smaller cubbies that can hold phones, staplers, notepads and the like.

To build your own stands, calculate the heights you’ll need based on OSHA’s guidelines and then consult How to Build a Box. The keyboard stand is essentially a box with an open base and a slightly overhanging top. The smaller monitor boxes are built with a shelf about 4 inches from the top.

Sitting, Sometimes

I quickly realized that I am naturally inclined to perform certain tasks while standing (mostly familiar and administrative) and others while sitting (anything new or creative). Editors Amanda Sorell and Hannah Kincaid also prefer to sit for tasks requiring intense focus. Kongs, Sorell and Kincaid use extra-tall chairs that can be lowered to the proper height for seated work. “What I love about my desk,” says Kincaid, “is the ability to do whatever feels good in the moment without being restricted.” You can search used office-supply stores for deals on adjustable extra-tall chairs.

Standing for too long at one stretch can be hard on your back. You can design an ergonomic workstation that includes both standing and sitting options. Use a cushioned floor mat and elevate one foot at a time on a footstool when standing.

The Write Desk

When setting up a standing workstation, think about the type of work you do. Do you use a laptop? Multiple monitors? Do you need plenty of surface area for paperwork? Space for books and office equipment? Your answers should help you decide whether you need an adjustable standing desk, adjustable chair, portable desk, retrofits or a combination. Be sure to implement the following OSHA guidelines for an ergonomic workstation:

Body. Your legs, torso, neck and head should be in line.

Floor. Padded floor mats will aid in your comfort. You may also find relief by using a footstool to elevate one foot at a time.

Screen. Place the monitor 20 to 40 inches away from your body and directly in front of you so that your entire body faces forward. The top of your screen should be at or slightly below eye level.

Keyboard and mouse. Your keyboard should be directly in front of your body, at a distance that keeps elbows by your side. You may find it necessary to install a keyboard tray and wrist rests.

Optional chair. If you opt to use a tall or adjustable-height chair, make sure that your thighs are parallel to the floor, and that your feet are supported by a footrest slightly in front of your body, or that you can lower your chair to rest your feet on the floor.

Contributing Editor Tabitha Alterman researched this article while standing up, wrote it sitting down, and edited it standing up.

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