Can Standing Desks Actually Be Bad For You?

I started a new job back in August, and about a week in, I realized I was getting crazy headaches and backaches that I wasn’t previously getting. My chair certainly wasn’t the problem (I’m very lucky that my employer has Herman Miller chairs) so I started to think about my posture. I realized that my desk was a little too high, so my shoulders we hunched up all day, causing these terrible headaches and backaches. Another awesome benefit of where I work is that we have the ability to request standing desks, as long as we go through an ergonomics evaluation.

Its hard not to hear about how “sitting is the new smoking” these days-it contributes to cancer, obesity, and back pain, among other things. We are sitting much more than ever, including 8 hours at work and countless more at home, in front of the computer or TV, and the cumulative effect of all this sitting is having a detrimental effect on our health. In fact, I read one scientific article that went so far as to say that sitting is killing us. The effects aren’t really lessened for those who exercise, either. SCARY!

So in light of this combined with my new pains, I went through the ergonomics process at work to request a standing desk, and after the month-long process was complete, I was the owner of a new, shiny convertible desk! I was so excited that the day I got it, I stood for a good 6 hours while working, which turned out to be a huge mistake.

I thought standing desks were supposed to be good for you...who knew that they might not be?

Too much, too soon

Turns out, getting a standing desk is kind of like adopting a new exercise routine-you need to ease into it, because your body isn’t used to it at all. By standing for 6 hours that first day, I didn’t have a headache, but my feet and lower back were killing me (figuratively of course!) My body was not used to standing for so long at once, especially when I’d been sitting all day, so I just traded old aches and pains for new ones.

If you try out a standing desk, be sure to take it slow-try for 20 or 30 minutes at a time a few times a day for the first few days. Let your body have a chance to get used to the new posture and weight distribution before standing for longer times.

Too much all the time

After that first snafu, I dialed it back and eased my way into standing more during the day in smaller chunks of time, until I was more comfortable standing for about half of my day. That worked well for awhile, until I realized those other random aches and pains were coming back, especially in my lower back. Turns out, that too much standing can also be bad for you. (How is a girl to win??) Prolonged standing day after day can cause blood pooling in your legs (because your heart has to work harder to circulate your blood) and enlarged veins in your legs, along with lower back pain. Wait...what? Wasn’t that what I was trying to avoid in the first place?

Since doing a bit more research into standing desks and the risks associated with it, I’ve made some modifications to my routine, and I’m happy that I’ve found a balance that works-I stand for no more than 45 minutes at a time, during which I constantly shift my position. I do this a few times a day for a total of no more than 2.5 hours in the day. I put weight on one leg, then the other, then both. Sometimes I put one foot up behind me resting on my chair. Sometimes I grab my foot and do a quad stretch (when no one’s looking of course!) and sometimes I do a toe touch stretch or calf stretch. I also got a small standing mat that helps cushion a bit of my weight to help my back.

Its all about balance

The key for me, and I think standing desks in general, is balance, and experts seem to agree that the problem is being in any one position for too long. I have times when I’m extra busy and stay sitting for too long, and I absolutely notice a difference, so I know the standing is helpful. Shifting around positions is also beneficial, and I do notice during my standing periods that I’m more likely to walk around and move more, and that helps promote healthy circulation and gets the muscles moving a bit.

So while standing desks are not the cure-all to sitting all day, they sure can be a help, and I’m am so glad I took the leap and got one. If you do get a standing desk, make sure yours is convertible and lets you sit too. Too much of a good thing can sometimes be bad.