DO NOT buy a standing desk without reading this first.

Every so often, it turns out that something we’ve all been using our whole lives is actually trying to murder us. A few years ago, it was our shoes.

Noooo! I trusted you, shoes!

Someone released a study, someone else published a book and the press picked up on it and decided that wearing modern shoes is the most dangerous thing you could possibly do in your life.

Next thing you know, we all look ridiculous.

"We didn't evolve to wear shoes," says guy sipping a latte.

“We didn’t evolve to wear shoes,” says guy sipping a latte.

A few months later, we decide that hey, maybe shoes aren’t actually the enemy. And more importantly, we figure out that we’d rather be comfortable than look and feel ridiculous.

Trend over. Shoes no longer deadly weapons. Barefoot shoe sales plummet.

That was fast.

That was fast.

Is this the same cycle we’re in now with standing desks and the “dangers” of sitting? I don’t know. But to a guy who admittedly got caught up in the barefoot fad, seeing headlines like this sure makes it feel familiar.

Dammit, chair. Not you too?!

Dammit, chair. Not you too?!

Today, I’m taking a real, honest look behind the hype on standing desks, and whether they’re actually better for you, both for your health and your productivity.

First, don’t believe the hype: sitting isn’t THAT dangerous

The latest health craze is the belief that sitting is the single most dangerous thing you can do in your life. Death Sitting I read an article and learned that sitting for even six minutes will double your risk of death, triple your risk of getting hit by lightning and virtually guarantee that you’ll get lyme disease.

Poor guy sat too long.

Poor guy sat too much.

Unfortunately, here’s the way most of the studies cited for these arguments are done (including this one from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which I’ve seen nearly a dozen times around the web in my research for this post):

  1. Researchers look at how much time a group of participants (or, in the case of the study linked above, a group of records in a data set) spent doing various activities each day. Examples: watching TV, exercising, smoking, etc…
  2. Researchers then cross-reference their findings to mortality rates and other health outcomes in the group to see which activities correlate (keyword) with which outcomes.
  3. Researchers publish nuanced findings and call for further research.
  4. Reporters and bloggers who care more about clicks and page-views than science turn the research into misleading headlines.
  5. Sitting = death.

Here’s the problem: I — and any reasonable person — would expect that those who sit and watch TV for many hours each day have many other unhealthy habits that could lead to issues and shortened life expectancies.

Digging into the studies that take those factors into account leads to a surprisingly different conclusion.

A study released a few months ago from the Mayo Clinic, much like many of the other studies in this realm, looked at how lifestyle factors impacted disease risk and longevity. Again, they found that those who spend more time being sedentary had a higher risk of disease.

But there’s a twist: when they looked at study participants who spent a lot of time being sedentary but also exercised for an hour each day, the negative effects of sitting were nearly wiped out.

Yet another study this year in PLOS ONE found that even doing light exercise daily (like walking) erased the negative effects of sitting.

Not so deadly now, are you, chair?

Not so deadly now, are you, chair?

Bottom line: Sitting might have a negative impact on your health, but that impact is exaggerated in the press and can be minimized (or eliminated) with light exercise.

Standing desks come with health risks, too

Those standing desks that were supposed to save us from the dangers of sitting? They come with their own risks.

In 2000, a study published by researchers at U.C. Berkeley found that standing for most of the day increases the risk of carotid atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

And one 2005 study, conducted over 12 years in Denmark, suggests that those who stand for more than 75% of their work day are far more likely to be hospitalized because of varicose veins.

Others have reported pain and numbness in their toes from using a standing desk.

Just like with the sitting studies, none of this means that using a standing desk will result in sickness or death, but it’s important to consider that the science on standing desks isn’t all rosy.

Some people ARE more productive when standing.

Some people report that standing while working makes them more productive.

That may be true.

Unfortunately, most of the evidence out there is purely anecdotal. The most linked-to test I could find — a seven-person “study” where a team tracked their productivity using a desktop time-tracking app — is hardly conclusive. The team claims that their productivity rose 10%, but the two biggest issues here are:

  1. Seven people isn’t a valid study by any means (I’m not criticising the team here; I love to see people experiment on themselves and I’m glad they tested this, I’m just suggesting caution before taking the results as gospel that applies to all of us).
  2. and the team could’ve been more productive because they knew they were participating in an experiment. The Hawthorne Effect (in which people change their behavior when they know they’re being observed) is very real.

Another issue to consider is that many standing desks cost $1,000 or more. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some cases, there were post-purchase rationalization at play — a type of cognitive bias that make us likely to overestimate the benefits (and overlook the costs) of an expensive purchase in order to convince ourselves that we made the right decision.

With that said, I don’t doubt that some people are more productive when standing, if for no other reason than they convince themselves of that. No matter the underlying cause, higher productivity is a very good thing.

But, standing could also HURT productivity

Anecdotally, in my own experiments with a standing desk, my productivity suffered.

I found myself walking away from my desk more. It was easier to get distracted, because the barrier to, say, walking into the kitchen for a snack, was lower. Not much lower, but enough so that it actually changed my behavior.

I was also getting tired and taking breaks more often.

Now, breaks are a very good thing. They can help you be more focused and productive, and are a great excuse to get that exercise to avoid the negative impact of being sedentary.

But I want to take breaks on my own terms. I don’t want my legs to dictate when my brain should stop working. I usually take breaks at natural points when my productivity or focus start to suffer. But with the standing desk, I’d often I’d be “in the zone” writing, and leg fatigue would tell me that it was time for a break.

"We're tired." "SHUT UP LEGS, I'm working."

“We’re tired.”
“SHUT UP LEGS! I’m working!”

Getting pulled away from work when you’re at peak productivity is devastating, and was far too high a cost for me than any of the benefits.

Still want a standing desk?

If you’re set on trying a standing desk, here’s what I recommend.

Start with a cheaper alternative (this is what I used) that converts your existing desk into a standing one. You’ll know quickly if it’s right for you.

If you know that you want to take the plunge and get a more serious standing desk, get one that converts to a sitting desk. It’ll help you prevent fatigue and distractions when you need to focus most. You could try a VARIDESK, a reasonably priced ($300+) option that, like the StandSteady, goes on top of your existing desk, or an UpDesk (like the VERIDESK, but spiffy and completely automatic ) as a higher-end option.

What do you think?

If you’ve already used — or still use — a standing desk, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Did it change your life for the better, or are you back to the chair?

If you were thinking about trying a standing desk, are you still considering it?

Leave a comment and let me know.

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  • Jan

    I love my chair, how it looks with me in it, how it molds to my behind, how it blends with my surroundings. It’s a much more personal purchase than a desk, we don’t sit on a desk for a test drive, spinning it around. Maybe we just need to appretiate it more with…chairersize?

    • http://www.homeofficehero.com/ Len Markidan

      Interesting perspective 🙂

      What kind of chair do you prefer?

      • Jan

        I have two chairs. One is small, just an adjustable seat and back, it does spin though. I use it to sit up and pay more attention to my work in front of me. It doesn’t let me get too comfortable which makes me refocus as I’m adjusting my body, and sometimes I do swivel and spin just to play with ideas. So I move around on it and it’s easy to move around. I make it pretty to suit me by draping the back with colored scarfs. My second chair is big, padded, with arm rests and tilts back. This is my dreaming, reading, thinking chair. You could hang a do not disturb sign around my neck when I’m in that chair. I make my own covers to pretty this chair up. I can put them into the wash and change according to the seasons and my mood. The small chair is at my day job, and my plush chair is for my home work space.

        • http://www.homeofficehero.com/ Len Markidan

          Nice! Love the level of thought you put into your chairs. Interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://writerlionel.wordpress.com Lionel Valdellon

    I tried standing for some of the day when these articles first started coming out. Hogwash! I can’t THINK straight when I’m standing. Not enough to write creatively anyway. I was able to edit other peoples’ work, just not create anything worth publishing. So, in short, you can all feel free to pry my chair from my butt when my cold dead carcass is frozen over. I’m sitting, thank you.

    • http://www.homeofficehero.com/ Len Markidan

      Agreed, Lionel 🙂 Thanks for chiming in.

  • Hayal

    if i could afford a standing desk i would buy one ASAP!!! i’m currently using a makeshift version i made myself and absolutely love it. when i’m tired i simply take a break and sit down for a while. the standing makes a huge difference in my concentration level and overall well-being – i highly recommend it!

    • http://www.homeofficehero.com/ Len Markidan

      Interesting — thanks for sharing, Hayal!

  • JR

    Len:

    Good article. Been trying the standup gig for a couple of years. Have never been able to stand for more than an hour at a time. My lower back tends to tire more than anything. Personally, I think that a treadmill desk might actually be the thing to get for those interested in getting out of their chairs. I just haven’t had the resources to put something together to test.

    When I started down the standing road though, I went the really low budget route to test. I ran to Home Depot and picked up a garage shelving unit (http://www.homedepot.com/p/Edsal-36-in-W-x-60-in-H-x-18-in-D-Steel-Commercial-Shelving-Unit-UR361860/100203714). I could split it in half and use the top half to set on top of my desk, similar to the Varidesk option you list but about half the price.

    Once I was satisfied that it was more than just a novelty, then I moved on to a product you haven’t listed. An Ergotron Workfit unit. Here is one if anyone is interested…http://www.provantage.com/ergotron-33-344-200~7ERGT0KX.htm. Gives one the ability to stand or sit at your will.
    I still do some standing but not as much as I thought I would do. And not as much as I think I might do if I were on a treadmill.

    • http://www.homeofficehero.com/ Len Markidan

      Ah, haven’t seen that one. Thanks, JR.

  • JR

    Oh…And by the way…I do feel a bit more energized when I am standing.

  • Maria

    I’d like to give it a try just to see if I would be able to concentrate. I can’t see how standing still in front of a desk while working could be any less “harmful” than sitting, though; it’s not like you’re exercising much, is it? And for people with problems in the back (myself included), it could cause even more problems. I’d rather invest top money on a comfortable chair that adjusts to my posture, the height of my desk etc and won’t hurt me in any way. Back pain is most probably the worst pain one can feel.

  • Alisa

    I used a Rubbermaid bin of the correct size that I happened to have at home to experiment with a standing desk when I first read that sitting was fatal. What happened to me was that my posture suffered. Rather than slouching in my chair, I slouched standing up, which hurt my lower back along with my shoulders (which were already suffering from slouching while sitting).

    My solution was to purchase a wedge for my seat which puts me in a position where my posture is correct, the curves in my back where they’re supposed to be etc., and it’s the best thing I could have done for my back pain and my productivity. I wasn’t expecting to become more productive, but when you’re forced to sit properly, your brain works better. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know, but that’s been my experience.

  • http://anthrodesk.ca AnthroDesk

    For Canadians, Anthrodesk.ca has full standing desks available, as well as desktop alternatives. Check us out!

  • Docia Myer

    I have an adjustable desk that goes up when I want to stand and down when I want to sit. I do find myself getting more focused and love the flexibility of not sitting all day. It has changed my life at work and I love it.

  • Andy Tracewell

    I noticed that you used the photo of the Caretta Workspace Standing Desk 2. We also have a smaller version of that desk http://www.carettaworkspace.com/products/desks/standing-desks/standing-computer-desk-1