If you’re going to start standing up at your desk at work, don’t kid yourself: You’re going to attract attention.
Fortunately, I have my co-worker Monica.
When we started this little experiment six months ago, we found ourselves fielding lots of questions.“Why are you standing?” some passing writer or editor would stop and ask us, as we stood like sentries along one of the main newsroom thoroughfares.
“Because we don’t want to die!” Monica would answer dramatically. What did I need to add after that?
The truth is, I wasn’t worried about dying when I began conniving to get a stand-up desk. Instead, I might label it fear of the blahs.
Over the years, I had concluded that sitting all day made me sluggish, less focused. On top of that, my neck and shoulders were routinely tight, and sometimes the pain interfered with my sleep. A company nurse adjusted my workstation more than once, but inevitably I’d begin unconsciously shifting myself out of correct posture the deeper I sank into my editing zone. I was vaguely aware of the trend toward standing in the workplace, but at the time The Post didn’t offer the option.
Yet the more I read about the benefits of standing at work — a lower risk of obesity, cancer and death and as well as a boost in mood and alertness — the more I wanted a stand-up desk. I learned that even regular exercise might not protect me from the damaging effects of sitting too much. To top it off, someone my weight could burn about 310 more calories a day just by standing at work.
I called the company nurse again and asked whether there was any way I could finagle a stand-up desk. It turned out none were available. But eventually, she came to visit me at my sitting desk. She raised the (helpfully, motorized) desk to its height limit and measured away. In barely a week’s time, she returned with custom-made wooden boxes, painted black, to raise my keyboard and mouse pads so I could type in the ergonomically correct position when standing. To sit, I’d have to motor the desk down about four or five inches, remove the box under the keyboard and tilt the monitor screens down slightly.
Finally, I stood at my jury-rigged desk for the first time, excited to see what difference it made, but not without some trepidation. How long, I asked myself, would I be able to hack standing up?
Ditching the high-heeled boots
The answer, as it turned out, was “Not so long.” I sacrificed my love of high-heeled boots, but even in my sensible heels and with short periods of sitting at meetings or strolling to lunch or to chat at a reporters’ desk, my feet began to ache before the day was half over. The newsroom floor of thin carpet over concrete was just too hard. I considered keeping more-cushioned shoes in my file cabinet to get me through the afternoon, but vanity got in the way. By around 2, after about 31 / 2 to four hours of standing, I plopped into my chair for the rest of the day. (Warning: If you are among the first to stand in a sitting office, your co-workers may think you are breaking the rules if you sit. Our office manager even jokingly threatened to remove my chair. Do not listen. More on this later.)
I was determined not to surrender, and after a few weeks I noticed I did feel more energized. Standing up, it seemed, was priming my brain for action even if it was killing my feet. I went on Amazon, ordered a mat filled with soft gel — of the sort you use for standing to wash dishes — and pretty soon I could go till about 5 p.m. without sitting.
But that’s just when things get really busy in a newsroom. So I’d let myself sit, motoring down my desk, removing the keyboard box and adjusting the screens. It truly was a lot of work to sit now. Eventually, I brought an adjustable plastic stool from home, pulling it out from under my desk when sitting time arrived. I used my cushy old desk chair when I needed to eat lunch at my desk. I avoided wearing my favorite high-heeled boots in the winter.
When the weather was warm, I would sometimes kick off my shoes and stand barefoot on my gel mat; it felt so good, it might have been sand on the beach. In fact, I was enjoying standing at work so much that even when I worked from home, I found myself yearning for a stand-up desk.
Monica had maintained her stand-up practice, too, and on the occasions we’d be standing together, we’d joke to passersby that we were protecting the men sitting around us. Every now and then, some unschooled colleague would ask why we were standing, and I’d defer. “Because we don’t want to d-i-i-e-e!” Monica would proclaim, and everyone would laugh. Unlike me, though, Monica allowed herself to sit more, especially on days when she was flaunting her stylish high-heeled boots.
A fleeting numbness
And then about six weeks ago, I began to feel a fleeting numbness in the toes of my right foot. My lower calf felt alternatingly pricked and uncomfortably warm. As I did a Web search for possible causes, my imagination took flight. Did I have deep vein thrombosis? Multiple sclerosis? A tumor pressing on my spine?
I made an appointment with my doctor. He checked the blood pressure in my ankle and my upper arm. It was roughly equal, meaning peripheral arterial disease was unlikely. He asked a bunch of questions about my personal and family health history. Then, still hunched on his stool, he looked me in the eye.
Do you feel fatigued?
Not at all.
Any shortness of breath?
The questions continued.
The doctor’s conclusion: I was standing too much at work. Those uncomfortable sensations were probably a result of hyperextending my knee, which could put too much pressure on the fibular nerve, a branch of the sciatic nerve, which starts behind the knee and runs alongside the fibula, or calf bone. Ironically, this can also occur when you cross your legs a lot while sitting.
As it turns out, you must check your posture constantly and move around, whether you sit or stand at work, because standing all day can be as bad as prolonged sitting. A2005 longitudinal study in Denmark found that the incidence of hospitalizations due to varicose veins was higher among those who stand or walk at least 75 percent of their time at work. The risk of hardening of the arteries was dramatically greater as well, according to a 2000 study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.
Of course, nurses and factory workers have known this for some time, but it seems to be largely forgotten in the stand-up-desk trend.
So this is a messy ending. I can’t urge you simply to “Stand and stave off premature death!” I can’t tell you you’ll most definitely feel great if you do. If you sit all day, you might even feel vindicated.
As for me, my doctor’s diagnosis of my leg pains did not prompt me to dismantle my stand-up desk. Now I follow my body’s cues. When I begin to feel lethargic or my neck or shoulders bother me, I shift to standing, and almost immediately my muscles relax and I feel more energized. If my legs or feet later begin to ache, I’ll take the experts’ advice and elevate one foot or plop into my chair. And I try to move a lot more in general — doing shoulder rolls, shaking out my limbs, walking to chat instead of e-mailing, or visiting the water fountain down the hall.
And like my fellow sentry Monica, when I want to wear high-heeled boots, I’ll sit most of the day if I feel like it — guilt-free.
-The Washington Post