To Sit or Stand?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, I’m sure you’ve read the articles about how bad prolonged sitting is for your health. If you sit for a major part of your day (at work, in traffic and at home), your risk of diabetes and heart disease is doubled. The scary thing is that’s how most engineers spend their days: sitting at work in front of a computer, studying for the latest cert at home, or unwinding by indulging in the latest episodes of “Dr. Who.” Greg Ferro recently wrote about creating a productive and comfortable home office and we had a related conversation about adjustable or standing desks, because I recently bought one for myself after countless hours of research. I also have lots of conversations with co-workers about how to get healthier through movement. Thought I’d share some of my findings, especially for Greg, who has had some difficulty finding such a desk in the UK (Guess what, I found one for you!).

I should start out by mentioning that I’ve had back issues for a long time. It actually started in college and is mostly attributable to the fact that at a height of 6’1″, I’m basically an amazon. And before you even ask, “No, I never played basketball and the weather up here is the same as it is down there, but if you ask me one more time, I’ll spit on you and say it’s raining.” Additionally, I have no idea if it takes me longer to shave my legs than a shorter woman, because we don’t do comparison testing. (Women also don’t have pillow fights or drink Cosmopolitans when we’re alone together, but I’ll save more of those misconceptions for another article.). But I digress. About ten years ago, due to extremely long hours sitting at desks that never seem to fit someone my height, my back got worse. It didn’t help that I was completely out of shape and got very little physical exercise. It resulted in back surgery and a complete transformation in the relationship I had to my physical self.

First, I’ve learned to bracket my day with exercise. I work out in the morning and also in the evenings. I know this isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth considering how you might be able to integrate more movement in your day. I will also walk over to talk to someone instead of using email or IM. Besides getting me up from that accursed desk, it’s usually a more efficient method of communication than a thread of 20 emails. And yes, I have drunk the Herman Miller Kool-Aid, but I prefer the Mirra Chair over the Aeron. I also found, after having a couple of ergonomic evaluations (Yes, you can and should for this if you’re feeling uncomfortable. Most medium to large companies will have someone available to perform this assessment, so you should take advantage of it.), that my desk is two inches too low. That means I can either get the desk raised or figure out a standing option.

You basically have a few choices when joining the standing desk crowd. You can go with a desk at a permanent standing height, an adjustable desk (powered or manual) that allows you to modify the height for standing and sitting, or you can buy a device that sits on top of your existing desk that approximates a fully adjustable one. I went through this with my last job and ended up with an adjustable desk, because I didn’t think I wanted to stand all day. It was hydraulic, but sometimes it got stuck. Based upon this experience, I examined some different options for home and ended up with a model that has a hand crank. Not too expensive and has made a big difference in my home office. But this may not be for everyone and there are other options, so I’m listing them here (including some MacGyver-type options).

But the most important advice I can offer is GET UP AND MOVE! It’s the best thing you can do for your body and state of mind.macgyver

Mrs. Y
Mrs. Y is a recovering Unix engineer working in network security. Also the host of Healthy Paranoia and official nerd hunter. She likes long walks in hubsites, traveling to security conferences and spending time in the Bat Cave. Sincerely believes that every problem can be solved with a "for" loop. When not blogging or podcasting, can be found using up her 15 minutes in the Twittersphere or Google+ as @MrsYisWhy.
Mrs. Y
Mrs. Y
  • Rachid Chaoua

    I recommend also making sure you have the right bed. I was suffering from lower back issues and I changed up my bed and they are basically gone now. I also have created a standing desk at work and stand for roughly half my day.

  • steve janke

    glad to see some attention to this topic. I like the manual crank for the desk, I’ve been looking for a similar solution for some time. Thank you for posting!!

  • euan_b

    I use a standing desk at home with an architecht’s chari – no need to worry about winding the desk up and down just plant the bum. As for sleeping, over the past year I’ve been using the floor with significantly better results. Mind you, I am single so there’s that :-P

  • http://www.knill.net/ David Knill

    Nice article – and I think an important topic for us technical folk. I’ll mention a 3rd option – WALK. I have a treadmill desk which I’ve been using for almost 4 years and have logged almost 3300 miles in that time (while working!). My daily record is 9.15 miles (that is rare) – I usually average 4-5 miles in a day when I’m working at home.

    If you are thinking I’m crazy – that’s OK – I get interesting looks all the time when I mention it. But I’m convinced it’s made a huge difference in my general health. It feels strange to hang at my other regular desk for very long (I have two desks). I switch between the two throughout the day (I have duplicate equipment – 2×2 monitors with HDMI splitters and 2 keyboards/trackballs). One thing I have noticed is that it is easier on my feet to walk than it is to stand for long periods. I can sometimes walk up to 3 hours in one shot – I don’t think I could stand in one place that long. I did have some back issues prior – those issues vanished within a few weeks of using the treadmill desk.

    I did go the expensive route – Steelcase Walkstation – but it had the features I wanted (including adjustable height, tax deductibility, and a phone number to call if I had issues). Just Google “treadmill desk” to see the benefits and many other options.

  • Jay

    Hahahaha! Epic phrase -> “I’ll spit on you and say it’s raining” , officially like Mrs. Y, will start reading her more often. Great article, love the recommendations

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