What Really Happens When You Switch to a Standing Desk

white table on sand with ocean behind stone wall

Aw, maaan… not again!

It feels like someone is twisting a screw into the base of your skull.

The pain began in its usual way — a slight pulling sensation in your neck. Three hours later it‘s a full-blown headache. You stand to stretch your stiff muscles, twisting left then right. Something you’ve done a hundred times before.

But today is different…

Today you notice one of your coworkers across the office, click-clacking away at his standing desk without a care in the world. Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve seen him over there. But in this moment something gives you pause.

Could it be the juxtaposition of how he looks versus how you feel? Or maybe it’s the thought of taking time out of your schedule to schlep across town to see the chiropractor.

And you wonder…

Could I be free of my neck and shoulder torment? Have more energy? Be more productive?

You’ve seen the articles hyping the supposed benefits of standing desks. They say sitting is the new smoking.

But you have your doubts.

Is it healthy to stand all day? Will it be exhausting? And is it really worth it — the cost and hassle to set it all up?

From research and personal experience I assure you:

It depends.

Fighting a Losing Battle

man at the doctor's office having his shoulder checked
Photo by Jesper Aggergaard

We spend far too much time sitting.

College, commuting, working, eating, relaxing… That’s a lot of butt time.

Sitting is hard on the body. Stay in one position for too long and your posture quickly degrades. Blood and lymphatic fluids don’t circulate well. Muscles become short and tight. Joints grow stiff.

Not a pretty picture.

My wife and I work from home and spend most of our time in front of a computer. After decades of sitting, we were suffering with chronic neck, back, and shoulder pain and stiffness.

I was constantly stretching, massaging, bending, twisting, hanging… but even then it felt like I was fighting a losing battle —never progressing and just trying not to get worse!

So (way back in 2013), we gave standing desks a try.

We decided not to spend a thousand dollars on a fancy setup (didn’t have the space anyway). So I rigged one using a couple tabletops, an IKEA dresser, and some hardware.

Google “IKEA standing desk hacks,” and you’ll find plenty of detailed instructions for creating a custom setup.

collage of different standing desk images from the internet

 

Initially we loved our new standing desk. It just felt cool.

But we quickly ran into problems.

Our feet and legs were tired and sore all the time.

It makes sense, right? You go from sitting around to standing all day. That’s like deciding to get in shape and then working out for 8 hours, 5 days a week.

Our solution?

Tall stools and a foam anti-fatigue mat that we could both stand on (our work stations were side by side).

Our plan was to switch between standing and sitting throughout the day.

The only problem was that we spent most of the time either leaning on the desk or sitting slumped on our stools. Worst of all, our productivity decreased.

The pain and fatigue made it hard to focus.

We finally gave in and returned to regular sitting desks. It felt so good to sit in a comfy office chair and, for a brief period, I was loving it!

And then it all came back…

The neck, shoulder, and back problems.

Frustrating? Yes.

Fortunately for us, we found another way.

My Wife Needed a Change

My wife and I shared a home office for years.

As much as we loved being around each other, it was terribly distracting. Just when one of us would get in the groove, the other would lean over and say something like, “Hey, did you see that email from so and so?”

Interruptions are a productivity killer.

At the start of 2019 we amicably separated our working spaces, immediately improving our focus. And, while we were making changes, my wife decided to give the standing workstation another chance.

This time she did her research. I’ll share what she discovered in the next section.

Her initial results were encouraging:

  • More energy
  • Increased productivity
  • Much less pain and stiffness

She was sold, but I wasn’t convinced (at first). After all, we had already been down this road. And, I really didn’t feel like changing my entire workspace again.

Ultimately, it was my frustration with pain and tension combined with my wife’s cajoling and encouragement that got me to give it another try.

I’m glad I listened…

The Winning Combo

So what did we do differently to succeed this time?

A combination of 3 factors:

  1. Good gear
  2. Proper working position (ergonomics)
  3. Strategic progressive effort

Let’s look at each factor in more detail.

1. Good Gear

There’s a profusion of companies selling standing desks and their accompanying paraphernalia online.

Based on my wife’s research, we concluded there were 3 key pieces of equipment necessary to make this work:

  1. Height-adjustable desk
  2. Adjustable, ergonomic keyboard
  3. High-density foam standing mat

We went with the manually adjustable (SKARSTA model) IKEA standing desk. Although regularly priced at $249, we bought it on sale for less than $200.

I appreciate its simple design and manual adjusting crank (no electronic motor to burn out).

IKEA SKARSTA adjustable standing desk
IKEA SKARSTA adjustable standing desk

The adjustable desk made it easy to switch between standing and sitting. It also made it possible to make micro-adjustments to get the perfect height for my keyboard.

The Goldtouch Ergonomic Adjustable Keyboard allows for both vertical and horizontal adjustments. I love how you can choose the exact angle, allowing for relaxed, comfortable wrists.

Goldtouch ergonomic keyboard

For me, the best part of this whole setup is the Ergodriven Topomat.

This fancy foam mat has a variety of angles and shapes on its surface that encourage you to frequently shift your feet around. I love how I can stretch my legs and feet using the assorted angles. I recommend going without shoes so you can massage and exercise your feet throughout the day.

This thing is amazing.

BONUS: Save your wrists with a vertical mouse

Your mouse is trashing your wrist and forearm. 

Why?

Because it causes your wrist to kink while forcing you to hold your forearm in a rotated position (palm facing down) for many hours a day. 

Fortunately, some brilliant person invented a vertical mouse. I’ve been using the Anker Vertical Mouse and my wrists feel great. 

Anker 2.4G Wireless Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse

2. Proper Positioning

Fancy gear alone won’t save your neck.

If you’re unfamiliar with the principles of ergonomics, I encourage you to spend even just 30 minutes learning the basics.

Oxford definition of "ergonomics"

 

Here’s a basic checklist of how I stay pain-free while working:

  • Maintain a tall, upright, and relaxed posture: No leaning or slouching
  • Keep you knees slightly bent: Don’t stand with locked knees
  • Position the top of your screen at (or slightly below) eye level
  • Place your screen about an arm’s length or more from your face
  • Keep your head level and “stacked” over your torso: No forward-jutting chicken neck
  • Shoulders relaxed, down, and back: Don’t collapse your chest or roll your shoulders inward
  • Elbows bent at a 90 degree angle or greater when your hands are in the typing position
  • Wrists straight and relaxed: Don’t hold your wrists in a kinked position

In the beginning, my adherence to these principles diminished quickly as fatigue set in. Fortunately, they eventually became habit.

The key is to build up your stamina so you don’t fall into bad habits that can injure you over time.

How do you do this?

3. Strategic Progression

Even with the right equipment you’re going to feel tired and sore until your body adapts.

For perspective…

You probably sit for at least 7 hours a day. If you stretch, exercise, or get massaged for 1 hour every day, that’s still 7 to 1. More realistically, you sit for 50+ hours each week and spend no more than 5 hours per week stretching, getting massaged, or working out.

That’s 10 to 1!

No wonder we feel awful.

Don’t be surprised to find yourself frequently leaning, sitting, slouching, or locking your knees when you get tired.

And that, my friend, is no good.

The second time around I didn’t let myself do this. Here’s what I did instead:

  • Spent more time sitting at first
  • Slowly changed the ratio of sitting to standing
  • Took frequent breaks
  • Shifted, fidgeted, and moved all day long
  • Ate more (for energy and building leg muscle)
  • Slept more (for recovery and building leg muscle)
  • Stretched and massaged my tired legs

Initially, I felt wiped out.

I didn’t want to form bad habits and took breaks often.

Every time you change positions it reawakens your proprioception, allowing your nervous system to gauge where your body is in space and helping you to maintain good posture.

Oxford definition of "proprioception"

 

Be ready to treat your adjustment to standing like you would if you were starting a new exercise regimen. You have to ease into it.

So, what were the results of my efforts?

Goodbye Nerd Neck

giraffe
Photo by Guy Roberts

 

It’s been 4 months as of the publishing of this (December 2019), and I have no intention of going back to sitting.

I’m well past feeling sore or tired. My posture has improved slightly (it was never bad). My neck, shoulders, and back feel much better.

I’m enjoying more energy, focus, and productivity.

My legs are stronger — I can stand for hours and don’t use my office chair anymore.

The single greatest benefit from all of this?

I’m literally moving all day long. Shifting, squatting, stretching, dancing, fidgeting, and massaging my feet on my Topomat.

I don’t believe standing in one position all day is better for you than sitting. If you take nothing else away, please remember this: Keep moving.

Do It Right or Don’t Bother

feet facing word "CAUTION" written in yellow paint on ground
Photo by Goh Rhy Yan

Our sedentary lives are killing us.

But doing the opposite and standing all day isn’t going to magically solve your problems. For many, it can bring a whole new set of issues.

Like most things in life, it’s all in the details.

I learned the hard way what worked and what didn’t. Now you don’t have to. You can use my ideas as a jumping off point for creating your own successful standing setup.

As you’ve seen through my experience, an adjustable standing desk can give you more energy, focus, and productivity. It can improve your posture, make you stronger, and help you move toward less pain and tension in your neck, shoulders, and back.

Best of all, it can get you moving more.

But only if you do it right.

Will it require an extra investment in time, effort, and money? Yeah.

But, based on the returns, I believe it’s well worth the cost.

What do you think? Are you ready to take a stand for your productivity and health?

 

note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which means I may earn a small commission if you buy something after clicking on a link. I only recommend products I’ve tried (and believe in). I appreciate your support!

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