DITCH YOUR OFFICE CHAIR FOR A NEW ‘STANDING DESK’
What Is Sitting Too Much Doing to Us?
The standing desk fad that you keep hearing about is based on a pretty substantial amount of research. Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic has a scary statistic to share: here in the US, we spend more than half of our waking hour sitting down, split between watching TV, driving a car, and working at a desk. This is not good.
The problem with sitting is essentially two-fold. AJ Jacobs, editor-at-large at Esquire, and author of the book Drop Dead Healthy breaks it down this way in his newest book:
The first part is obvious: We burn fewer calories when we’re sitting. The second part is more subtle but perhaps more profound: marathon sitting sessions change our body’s metabolism.
Bill Phillips at Men’s Health writes about a study in the research journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that found, in a large research pool of 17,000 men and women, that people who “sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks.”
Sure, correlation is not necessarily cause for alarm, but get this piece from a Men’s Health feature on sitting: “We see it in people who smoke and people who don’t,” Katzmarzyk told Masters. “We see it in people who are regular exercisers and those who aren’t. Sitting is an independent risk factor.”” Professor Marc Hamilton, Ph.D from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, says to Maria Masters in the same Men’s Health feature, Is Your Office Chair Killing You?, “The cure for too much sitting isn’t more exercise. Exercise is good, of course, but the average person could never do enough to counteract the effect of hours and hours of chair time.”
No, really, exercise only helps a little bit, or not at all. Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and research fellow in biology at Imperial College London who writes on the “influence of science and biology on modern life” for The New York Times, says,
“It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting — in your car, your office chair, on your sofa at home — you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death. In other words, irrespective of whether you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods is bad for you.”
Jim Carlton writes, for The Wall Street Journal, ” A 2010 study by the American Cancer Society found that women who sat more than six hours a day were 37% more likely to die prematurely than women who sat for less than three hours, while the early-death rate for men was 18% higher.”
Neil Wagner at the Atlantic writes about the most recent study, taken from a stunning sample size of 222,497 Australians by the Sax Institute. The study debates the amount of benefit of exercise in offsetting the problems coming from sitting:
“Its most striking finding was that people who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40% higher risk of dying in the next three years than people who sat less than four hours a day. This was after adjusting for factors such as age, weight, physical activity and general health status, all of which affect the death risk. It also found a clear dose-response effect: the more people sat, the higher their risk of death.”
How Is Sitting Bad?
Olivia Judson explains the effect it has on our biology:
“But it looks as though there’s a more sinister aspect to sitting, too. Several strands of evidence suggest that there’s a “physiology of inactivity”: that when you spend long periods sitting, your body actually does things that are bad for you.
As an example, consider lipoprotein lipase. This is a molecule that plays a central role in how the body processes fats; it’s produced by many tissues, including muscles. Low levels of lipoprotein lipase are associated with a variety of health problems, including heart disease. Studies in rats show that leg muscles only produce this molecule when they are actively being flexed (for example, when the animal is standing up and ambling about). The implication is that when you sit, a crucial part of your metabolism slows down.
Nor is lipoprotein lipase the only molecule affected by muscular inactivity. Actively contracting muscles produce a whole suite of substances that have a beneficial effect on how the body uses and stores sugars and fats.
Which might explain the following result. Men who normally walk a lot (about 10,000 steps per day, as measured by a pedometer) were asked to cut back (to about 1,350 steps per day) for two weeks, by using elevators instead of stairs, driving to work instead of walking and so on. By the end of the two weeks, all of them had became worse at metabolizing sugars and fats. Their distribution of body fat had also altered — they had become fatter around the middle. Such changes are among the first steps on the road to diabetes.”
All of this press coverage is great, and has helped to identify the real dangers of sitting. Unfortunately, all of these stories tend be pretty vague about what to do instead of spend all day on your ass.
What Can I Do About It?
First off, you don’t need to buy a standing desk to get some of the benefits of standing. You can start small. Even something as minor as taking a 5-minute standing break every hour is better than sitting all day. You can stack boxes on your desk, or do what I have done for two months and work from a kitchen counter. (I used to work on my couch with my bulldog snoring next to me.) [Editor's Note: Half way through edits, the research included in this piece terrified me so much that I had to stop and grab a bench and stack it on my desk.]
Stephanie Smith, for Men’s Health, has some tips on how to standing up at your desk: Wear footwear with padding, get used to standing slowly, over time, and to stand with one leg slightly resting on a raised object to give your spine room to flex naturally. Also, don’t be afraid to lean on your desk a little.
There are perks, aside from the health concerns above. Mainly, elevated energy levels and calorie burning. Stephanie Smith says, “Studies show that standing burns 40 percent more calories than sitting, and that just 2.5 hours on your feet per day burns 350 calories—that’s 20 pounds per working year.”
I am burning a lot more calories by standing (and fidgeting, and even sometimes dancing, which is kind of the point) than if I was sitting all day. But I think best of all is the intangible benefit of staying focused and energized throughout the day. In my sedentary life, I usually crash pretty hard around mid-afternoon. When I stand, I find that I am alert and attentive all day long. The WSJ piece echoes this, quoting a Facebook employee who stands with a company-provided desk: “Greg Hoy, 39 years old, asked for a standing desk shortly after joining Facebook seven months ago as a design recruiter. “I don’t get the 3 o’clock slump anymore,” he said. “I feel active all day long.”
If you need more reason to stand while you work instead of sit, know that Ernest Hemingway stood while he worked. So did Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin and Valdimir Nabokov. On the contrary, Winston Churchill once said, “Why stand when you can sit, and why sit when you can lay down?” However, it turns out that Churchill was not being completely honest when he said this–Churchill stood when he worked, too. And he lived until 90.
What Are the Drawback and Dangers?
Standing all day long is not that healthy, either. TIME Magazine quotes Alan Hedge from Cornell University, who claims that standing 8 to 10 hours a day can lead to increased varicose veins, and a ninefold increase rate in carotid atherosclerosis (constricted arteries). This is a valid point, but I’m guessing that most people out there do not spend 8-10 hours a day standing. They instead spend that time sitting. So I still think that standing is better than sitting, just as long as you take some breaks. Because remember, the enemy is not sitting–it’s sitting all day.
When you are new to it, standing can feel tiring, and your feet can hurt. Just how uncomfortable the first week or two might feel depends upon how sedentary your current lifestyle is.
Above all, we recommend moderation with your standing. My uber-healthy sister is about a a 85:15 ratio of standing to sitting, and Shane Harris from Washingtonian Magazine is at a similar ratio. Gina Trapini formerly of LifeHacker is more like 70:30. Find your own workable ratio. Also, while there’s no science backing this, you’ll be more comfortable standing if you’re in flat shoes, or barefoot, and definitely with some type of soft mat underfoot. It’ll make the transition that much easier.
What to Look for in a Standing Desk (And: Recommended Desks and Gear for Standing)
Did you know you can design your own stand-up desk? I found a pretty genius approach at ikeahackers.com that combines parts from 4 different Ikea products in order to create a standing work station. It’s not adjustable, so you have to build it to the height that works for you, but it’s one of the best standing desks I’ve found on the Internet. Apartment Therapy has a few more options for making your own.
In fact, the inherently DIY nature of standing desks makes it hard to find “the authority” on the best desk on the market. I’ve tried to read about or personally speak with a bunch of people, especially journalists, who have worked at a standing desk for at least a few months. There is no consensus on what purchasable desk works best. In fact, most of the people I spoke with made their own. But there is consensus on what to look for in a good desk.
Your company, if it’s a big one, might splurge for you. More on those later.
Transform the Desk That Is Killing You Into a Standing Desk (AKA What I’d Get)
If you already have a desk that you love, and you don’t want to replace it, consider the Kangaroo Pro Junior. It’s definitely what I would get.
The Kangaroo Pro Junior from Ergo Desktops is the best way we have found to convert a regular desk to a standing desk.
It is without a doubt the best addition for your current, well-loved desk so that it can easily convert from standing to sitting, and back again. The Kangaroo Pro Junior comes fully assembled: you just take it out of the box, and plop it down on your desk, and you’re pretty much ready to go. It features a 24″ x 18″ platform that serves as the base (the regular model has a bigger platform, but you probably don’t need it). The base level is for your keyboard. Then there’s a second level, which is for your monitor (the “Pro” actually replaces the top platform with a mount for a monitor, so if you have a monitor that you can mount, go with the Pro. These guys also have models that support larger monitors, as well. Check with them.)
With your monitor and keyboard in place, you loosen a knob and then raise and lower each of the two platforms to your desired height. Throughout the day, you can stay at your same old desk, and go from sitting to standing at free will.
The adjustable steel rod is designed to want to raise the platforms, rather than let gravity allow them drop, so you don’t have to worry about your monitor slipping down to the desk level if you over-loosen the knob. It doesn’t raise quite as easily as the press of a button, but it’s still pretty easy. Each model comes with a stabilization leg, which you wedge in between the two platforms once you have them set to your standing height. This makes the already sturdy Kangaroo Pro Junior even sturdier. Without the leg, it will unquestionably hold your monitor and keyboard, or even a laptop if you work at a laptop + monitor set-up. (We tried this.) Once you slide the stabilizing leg into place, it becomes even more sturdy, and will even hold you up if you sometimes lean into it.
I got to speak with Dan Sharkey, the creator of Ergo Desks (the parent company for the Kangaroo Pro Junior). I wanted to know why his desk attachments were free to slide around the desk, rather than clamp permanently into one place in your work station, like most of the competition. “We see that as an extreme advantage,” he explained to me. “When you clamp something to your desk, you are a slave to that position. As you’re standing and working, you might want to rest your weight on the right side, or turn your body, or lift your left leg, and with the Kangaroo, you can slide it around to accommodate your natural movement as you stand and work. Also, real estate on most people’s desk is an important commodity. The prime real estate of your desk is right where you want to sit down. If you want to sit down and write, rather than work at your computer, you can just slide the Kangaroo out of the way, and the main area of your desk is still available to you.”
This has nothing to do with the quality of the product, which speaks for itself, but the creation of Ergo Desks is one of the great recovery stories from the current economic recession. Dan worked for the same manufacturing company in Ohio for 35 years, and hurt his back in early 2009. Sitting all day at his office only made it worse, so he tinkered around with his desk to add something to it that would allow him to stand at times during the day. By his 20th model, he had finished the first Kangaroo. His friends and colleagues were curious, but he mostly just built them for himself…until he was laid off at his company due to downsizing, at age 55, wondering what the hell he was going to do. At his wife’s urging, he decided to take his standing desk hobby and make it his profession, and Ergo Desks was born. He now has 11 employees and is proud to still manufacture in the United States.
The Kangaroo Pro Junior costs $349. Dan from Ergo Desktop uses a full-sized Kangaroo, which has a bigger platform and is more stable, and says he’ll never be able to use anything smaller, but I think the Kangaroo Pro Junior will suffice for most users.
There are other desk-mount options, but the Kangaroo Pro Junior is the sleekest and the most functional. The most clear alternative is at ErgoTron (different from Ergo Desktop, which makes the Kangaroo) a company that makes a series of desk mounts that lock very sturdily to the front your desk. They are essentially adjustable monitor arms, which can accommodate a wide variety of monitor set-ups, everything from a standard monitor + keyboard, to two monitors, to a monitor and a laptop and a keyboard. In fact, the options are a bit dizzying, but closest alternative to the Kangaroo Pro Junior is the WorkFit-A, Single LD, which costs $379. I’ve had the chance to see tat the WorkFit-A, as well as another model, and the sturdiness is clearly the main benefit. But beyond that, I’m not a huge fan. They are big and bulky and very metallic and kind of look like the Terminator’s arm when he peels back his skin to prove that he’s a robot. Worst of all, their keyboard trays are super flimsy. Which means that if you actually do the laptop + monitor set-up (which I suspect is fairly prevalent), you’re putting your valuable laptop on a very flimsy platform for typing. I’ve been told by people at ErgoTron that a more laptop-friendly model is in the works.
(We usually let beat reporters handle the testing and find the best reviews, but since no one looks at these desk transformers, we checked out both the Ergotron and the Kangaroo ourselves. The Kangaroo is amazing and wins hands down.)
The Simple, Standalone Standing Desk
But if you work at home, and don’t already have a desk the simple standing desk I would get is the Safco Muv Stand-up Adjustable Height Workstation because it’s solid and inexpensive.
One of the biggest considerations in getting the best standing desk, and the problem with the DIY Ikea desk and standing at a kitchen counter, is the height. It’s ideal to be able to customize your desk to meet your specific height requirements. My kitchen counter is not the perfect standing desk, in fact, it’s not even that good. When I lay my laptop on it, I have to crane my neck to look down at my screen, and reach my arms up to type. I make a point of taking breaks to stretch my neck and shoulders. Is standing at the bar in my kitchen better than sitting all day? Yes. But it could be a lot better.
Also, it’s good to split your keyboard and your monitor, which is a big strike against laptops. Ideally, while standing (or even while sitting), you should be looking straight ahead, at eye-level, to see your monitor. Meanwhile, your arms should be parallel to the ground while you type. If you reach your arms straight out in front of your you, the finger tips should barely touch your monitor. All of this is impossible to do this with a laptop, since the screen and keyboard are practically attached. So your desk should optimally be built around a split monitor and keyboard set-up. And yes, you can use your laptop as a keyboard.
I was actually tipped off onto the Safco Muv model by Shane Harris, an award-winning reporter for Washingtonian Magazine. He ventured into the world of standing desks for an article on them, and his criteria for what makes the desk work is very consistent with what we look for here at The Wirecutter.
The best part of this desk is the customization of the height. It ranges from 35” to 49”, with an option for every inch in between, which means that this desk should work for most of the general population, besides the really, really short or the really, really tall.
It also comes with multiple layers. This cannot be emphasized enough. The Safco Muv has two platforms for keyboard and monitor, and two additional shelves below for things like your printer, computer base, books, paper, kittens, stuff like that.
The aesthetic of the desk is good enough, which is definitely a consideration. The combination of wood shelves on a steel frame gives it a simple, modern look that I think will work is almost every office. It comes in walnut, cherry and “grey” finishes.
And finally, it’s affordable. This cannot be said for most of the standing desks on the market. Amazon lists it at $245, which is a good deal considering you are buying a piece of furniture, and that many standing desks cost over $1000.
The Safco Muv is a great standing desk, but it is not perfect. There are two strikes against it. For starters, there is not a lot of surface area. It is pretty narrow, and really only has room for your computer, which makes it more like a standing computer station than a true standing desk. Granted, an overwhelming majority of the work we do is at a computer these days, but it’s nice to have extra space for handwriting and sketching. Shane from the Washingtonian actually uses his Safco Muv as an extension of his current desk. He added it onto his current work set-up, and has the two positioned at a 90 degree angle to each other. When he’s typing or browsing the internet, which is most of the day, he’s standing. When he’s reading something closely to take notes on it, he’s spins over to his old desk and sits…not necessarily because he wants to sit, but because there’s no room to take notes.
But the biggest strike against the Safco Muv is that is cannot be easily adjusted from a standing to a sitting desk. Once it’s built, it’s static. There is no up-and-down. There is a class of standing desks that easily adjust from standing to sitting, and we’ll look at those in a second, but the Safco Muv is not one of those.
All said and done, the Safco Muc Stand-Up Adjustable Height Desk does most things better than any other desk I’ve found, and if used as an extension of your current, sitting desk, it is the best standing desk to buy.
It is worth talking through the other options, because like I’ve said, anything is better than sitting. Maybe you have the money to afford an immediately adjustable desk that is electronically adjustable. Or maybe you have a big, expansive desk that you love, and you just want to add something on top of that one to make it a standing desk. Here are a few of the other anything’s that are better than sitting.
Expensive Electric Standing Desks
There are several top-of-the-line options for desks that are mechanized, and with the push of a button, will raise to your desired height. There’s a huge range of mechanized standing desks, and a few that stand-out. (I’m going to quote prices for desks of approximately 5 feet long by 3 feet deep, to simplify things, but will let you know if the desks are available in larger sizes.)
The Basic: As for the more basic electronic desks, GeekDesk makes an extremely popular platform that goes up and down with a push of a button. You’ll have to do all customization on your own–shelves and wire organizers are not options, nor are built in power strips, keyboard trays or holes to pass cables through–and the wait time for desk orders is up to 6 weeks, but they start at $924 (factoring in shipping, which might be more). You can get a 48-inch long version for $50 less or a 78-inch long version for the same cost as the 60-incher. There’s a max version that has programmable height presets, on the electric controller, which costs $1100. There’s a 2 year warranty on moving parts and electrics and the desk itself for 5 years. The recent version has improved stability, which is a nit against it.
Better: For the most well-rounded option with lots of options, there’s the NewHeights Electric Sit to Stand Desk with Push Button Height Adjustment. It’s sleek, modern looking, and can be configured with a huge surface area: from 24×30 inches to 30×72 inches. There are some table top options including a small drawer and wire management. It also has the best weight-bearing capacity and the fastest rate of rise (1.8″/sec) on the market. The basic version goes for $1,149, but it’s better to go with the fully-loaded version $1,526. It’s a performer and a relative value and they brag about its stability in a Youtube video. Has a 2-year warranty.
Beautiful and pricey: If you’re willing to cough up more money for a more aesthetic and eco-friendly desk, I’d go with Terra by NextDesks. It’s got similar specs to the NewHeights, it’s just more beautiful, with bamboo desktops and a frame made with recycled aluminum. Similar to NewHeights, there’s the basic cost, and then the cost for adding things like a keyboard tray, holes to pass cables through, power strips and monitor arms (which you can get on your own, anyhow). Truth is, if I could afford it, this is the one I would get. I like the 3-year warranty, too. Basic runs about $1,500 including curbside delivery; beefed up with all the options above is $2,287. (Add $300 for the 79-inch top) It’s well designed and you pay for it. Oh, there’s a glass and aluminum desk that they offer–It starts at $1922 with shipping and no options.
Insane: The true Rolls Royce of standing desks is the Elevate Adjust from Anthro (image below), which has got it all, including multiple shelves for keyboard and monitor. It’s gigantic and is probably a bit excessive, but it’s still sweet. It can hold up to four, yes four, computer monitors, and has beefy casters for shifting the desk around. It’s got more than one individual needs, and at $3200 for the 60-inch costs more than most individuals are interested in paying, but could be great if your company is footing the bill. The only real accessory to consider on it is the $120 16-outlet power strip. Kevin from Crackberry.com loves it.
A Big Caveat: The overwhelming concern of all of these desks is their price. Here’s a huge caveat on them from me: We listed a number of models at different price points, but no one to date has looked at many of them at once, so there’s no editorial source that can point us to the best. (Testing TVs is bad enough when it comes to clutter; can’t imagine the burden on a freelancer’s home while testing furniture.) These are the ones that seem good, but we don’t know for sure how they stack up side by side. And without context, a stand alone test is worth very little, but the Geekdesk and the Anthro seem the least risky, given their popularity.
I love Steelcase in general, but their standing desk, the air touch, is basic, expensive and ugly. Herman Miller has what looks like a modified Envelop desk, says Apartment Therapy, but there’s nothing much special about it and I can’t find any information on it anywhere.
How About Treadmill Desks?
The biggest reason why I’d pause at buying one of these beefed up desks is because for this kind of money, you start to enter the price range of treadmill desks, which are undoubtedly better for your health, even though they take up more room, than standing desks.
AJ Jacobs was a treadmill desk convert, and actually wrote “Drop Dead Healthy” at his treadmill desk, and logged over 1,000 miles while working on the book. It’s a diet fad from his book that he is adamant about continuing, even though he has technically concluded his research.
But for this post, we’re mostly sticking to the world of standing desks. They are like are training wheels for the much more extreme world of treadmill desks, which most of us will never try or maybe don’t have the space or funding for.
What I’m Getting
I’m getting the Kangaroo Pro Junior because I’ve got a desk and I don’t think its worth tossing it to get a standing set up. I also don’t want to choose a desk from a field of standing desks alone. I’d rather get a desk of my choosing and modify it into something I can sit and stand at without too much fuss.
What To Look Forward To:
A treadmill desk is even better.