Mikael Cho, 28, had heard the rumblings. “Sitting is the new smoking,” experts declared, referring to robust research finding that sitting too much ups your risk of death, even if you exercise regularly.
Cho didn’t want to be a sitter. So the 28-year-old founder of Crew, a startup that pairs clients with Web designers, built his own standing desk from Ikea, laid a yoga mat on the floor — and stood.
Thank goodness he didn’t pay more than $22.
“It’s really hard to [work] when you’re thinking about the pain in your leg, when you’re trying to force yourself to stand, when your shoulders are starting to cave in,” he says, when, “what you really want to do is focus on the next paragraph that you’re writing.”
Needless to say, Cho doesn’t use a standing desk anymore.
People across the country and even around the world are taking a stand at work. The adjustable-height desk company UpDesk, for one, which launched in 2012, doubled its sales in year two and is on track to double them again, said Kamron Kunce, a spokesman for the company, in an email. It’s easy to see why. One 2014 study in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health found that giving a bunch of desk jockeys sit-stand desks reduced their sedentary time by more than three hours a week. It also increased their sense of well-being and energy, while decreasing fatigue and appetite — and kept their productivity steady.
But there are caveats. Namely, that you have to be the right kind of person in the right kind of job (Cho wasn’t), and you have to use the furniture in the right kind of way. One 2013 study in the journal Applied Ergonomics found that workers who were trained in ergonomics and sent reminders about how to use the furniture correctly had fewer muscle problems in seven body regions than a group who got the desks sans training.
“The majority of people who get frustrated (and ultimately leave) a standing desk is because they’re not taught how to correctly utilize it,” Kunce emailed.
Are you guilty?
Mistake No. 1: You stand all day.
Standing all day is no better than sitting all day, says Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environment Analysis at Cornell University. “If what you’re doing is replacing sitting with standing, you’re not actually doing your body any favors,” he says. “In fact, you’re introducing a whole variety of new risk factors.”
For example, standing too much can compress the spine and lead to lower back problems over time. It can also boost your risk for carotid arteries, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis and other cardiovascular problems since the heart has to work against gravity to keep blood flowing up from your toes, Hedge says.
“If you go from sitting to standing and vice versa frequently throughout the day … that completely eradicates any of the supposed risk factors associated with sitting, or indeed with standing,” he says.
Mistake No. 2: You stand (or sit) still.
Poor chairs. They’ve become the scapegoat for the dangers of sedentary behavior since most studies look at how much people sit, not how much they don’t move.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re standing or sitting, if you’re doing it statically, your body wasn’t designed that way,” says Ken Tameling, an ergonomic seating expert at the furniture company Steelcase. “You need to move.”
When you’re standing, that might mean using a foot rest to take the weight off of one foot and then the other. When you’re sitting, it can mean reclining so your legs and torso form a 135-degree angle — the healthiest seated position, Tameling says. “It might be making you look like you’re lazy, but you might be coming up with that next big idea.”
Even if you just fidget, “any kind of micro-movement is going to give you some value,” Tameling says. “The worst thing you can do is sit in one posture — basically what you want to do is ignore your first-grade teacher.”
Mistake No. 3: You use it for the wrong tasks.
There’s a reason why we drive sitting down, why some surgeons perform detailed surgery while seated and why Cho felt less effective as writer when upright: Our brains just perform some tasks — like those that require fine motor skills — better sitting down, Hedge says.
“The brain works by processing things sequentially, so it becomes hard to do multiple things at once,” he says. “The key here is don’t throw everything away because we have really good chairs these days.”
If your job requires longer spurts of concentration, you may also want to avoid alerts that tell you when to sit, stand and move around since it takes 25 minutes to get back into that focused state after being interrupted, Tameling says.
For that reason, Cho’s found it easiest to work in (seated) “sprints” of 30 to 90 minutes. “It’s important to stand and sit, and yes, there’s some tools that can probably help you with that,” he says. “But your body does a really good job of telling you” when it’s time to move.
Mistake No. 4: You do it for the calorie burn.
Standing burns about 20 percent more calories than sitting — but it also makes you tire more quickly, Hedge points out. “If your job is dependent on you not getting so tired, then you need to sit down for part of the day to do that job,” he says.
Cho decided that the extra 100 or so calories wasn’t worth the blow to his work and comfort. Plus, incorporating physical activity in other ways can be more effective — and fun. Now, he does squats while waiting for his lunch to microwave, takes 20-minute walks outside and stretches his hips at least daily. “Then I can still focus on my work, even if I’m sitting all the time while I’m working,” he says. “It’s more about the activity.”
Mistake No. 5: You spent big bucks.
Cho had the right idea when he built a standing desk on the cheap rather than splurging on one that cost upwards of $2,000. “I didn’t want to invest in one … without testing it first,” he says.
But even the $22 Cho dished out is $22 more than you have to spend, since “it doesn’t cost you anything to stand up,” says Hedge, who suggests standing when you’re making phone calls or reading paperwork, since standing while doing computer work still doesn’t give your arms, hands, fingers or eyes a break.
“Before you spend any money,” he says, “try out the obvious simple solution.”
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4 Ways Your Standing Desk Is Doing More Harm Than Good originally appeared on usnews.com