I’d read a smattering of pieces on Lifehacker or Boing Boing or wherever over the last few years and wondered, in a vague and passing way, how it must feel to stand and use a computer all day. Impossible, in short. Standing for more than an hour or so used to make me feel as if my spine was pile-driving my pelvis through the middle of my knees.
At the same time I’ve known for years that I’m just a terrible sitter. Despite my constant availability, I have not yet been called into a life of crime fighting, elite sportsmanship or sheep herding. It seems, therefore, that I am likely to spend a significant part of my working life, itself possibly stretching ahead for the next 20 or 30 years, working at a desk.
I also find myself, once in a while, expounding without any authority about how we are surely heading for some sort of Office Worker Extinction Event in 20 or 30 years time as a generation pays heavily for having been sedentary for their entire adult lives. I have no idea whether this is a reasonable projection, but I know two things: Firstly, it feels like it could be, and that’s the most important thing and, secondly, despite feeling this fairly strongly, I’d done nothing to change my own behaviour.
For the last 12 months I had a little cartoon of a guy demonstrating the correct way to sit in an office chair set as the desktop image on my work computer. I’ve got rid of him now. I used to nod hello to him every morning as I booted up and then he’d spend the entire day buried beneath a deep stack of windows. I stopped noticing him. I just was’t paying him enough attention, so our days were numbered. Sorry little guy, it was me, not you.
Then, in the Summer, as part of shifting desks in and out of storage to accommodate a new team member, it occurred to me to ask whether there was a standing desk in there. We used to work with a woman who had to be constantly vigilant to keep her back problems at bay and in the course of her time with us she accumulated a wide range of adapted chairs and tables. Her most impressive piece of kit was an electric desk that could be lowered and raised as required, including up to standing height. It must, I thought, be lurking somewhere in storage.
I asked and, in return, I received a dog-eared little table, distinctly non-adjustable but, as it happened, more or less the right height for me to stand at. So, in the spirit of enquiry, I left it by the window and resolved to try it once in a while. I did, bending over my laptop for half an hour here or there. It was novel, but not revelatory. I used it less and less.
In August we moved offices and, without quite enough desks to go around, it seemed as if it might be time to really give the standing desk a proper go. I’d continued to skim pieces about the long-term health problems sitting might cause, and my sitting itself was getting worse, so why not?
I’m not one for easing into changes like this, particularly when they involve giving up something apparently vital to leading a normal life. I’d read that it was important to shift from sitting to standing gradually, but once I’d made the mental switch, the physical shift had to follow unequivocally. So, when we came back from our Summer holiday, I started standing.
I didn’t find the transition difficult to make. I had been led to expect to find myself struggling and having to sit after a couple of hours, slowly building up over a number of weeks until I could do a full day. Instead I haven’t sat down to work at my PC since that first morning, with the exception of making the odd phone call and attending the usual, very odd meetings.
I think it’s been good, although I’m not completely sure of that, and I’m not sure I can quantify the ways. What I can say with some certainty is that in many ways it really doesn’t feel much different. By which I mean, within a few days I was standing to work without actively thinking about it. If that’s the case, half-knowing what I think I know, why not stand?
The pieces extolling the benefits continue to drift beneath my nose and I continue to glance at or listen to them. Like many of the apparently significant lifestyle changes I’ve made over the last few years, this one has been made on a few shreds of hastily digested evidence and forced home through gut instinct and stubbornness. Once a change of this sort has been affected, I find it’s important not to continue to delve deeply into the external rationale. Sometimes the belief that you’re doing yourself some good can be enough. For me, anyway.
I haven’t felt a detectable surge of additional vitality. Perhaps there’s been one but only of sufficient quantity to give me the energy to stand all day. I can’t be certain that I’m more creative or focussed. I can say with some certainty, that I never find myself drifting off into a reverie, pushing away tiredness or the unwelcome advances of sleep as I’m sure most office workers do at some time or another. When you’re standing up, your body seems keen to keep you awake.
I have, however, developed intense paraesthesia in my left arm and hand. That’s pins and needles to you and I. One of the absolutely clear lessons I’ve learned this year, and in hindsight it seems obvious, is that being a poor sitter is no guarantee of being a good stander. For whatever reason, I certainly am not. A couple of weeks after I started standing to work I started to feel intense tingling in my arm when I sat back down. By adjusting my angle I could make it dissipate or, indeed, bring it back. I traced this to an intensely tender spot between my shoulder blades and, after putting up with the effects for 5 or 6 weeks, I finally went the see a physiotherapist.
It turns out i’m not so good at standing as I may have thought. I’d been staying on my feet by locking my knees, hoicking up my pelvis and thus whacking everything above it out of line. Now, under instruction, I’m softening my knees and standing like an orang-utan, or at least that’s how it feels underneath my trousers which are, otherwise, unmoved. I have some stretches to do the lengthen out my nerves, which is a good thing all round. It’s getting better.
So, in conclusion, I can’t claim that this has been a revelation or even feels as if it’s a long-term transition to a better way of working. I can say that it hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it might be, and that I quite like it. Going back to sitting for whole days at a time now feels like a fundamentally weird thing to do. Which, bearing in mind I’ve been doing it for the preceding 37 years, does indeed seem like a profound shift. In that way, at least, it feels like a positive change, even if I can’t put my finger on why.
For the foreseeable future, i’m a stand-up guy.
Make sure the surface of the desk is at the right height for you. I started out with a table which was about an inch and a half lower than my elbows. Even that was enough to have me subtly hunching and stretching forward to my keyboard and, over the first few weeks, this was a major contributing factor to the problems with my arm. Eventually I stuck a couple of loose abandoned shelves under the feet of the table and now, at just slightly above elbow height, the surface seems about right.
If you use a lot of screen estate, particularly double monitors, consider turning them into portrait orientation (see the picture above). I found that having two widescreen monitors side by side meant I was twisting back and forth quite a lot. In hindsight, having to move about to see everything may have ben a good way to keep my back loosened up, but instead I turned the screens around and that’s been a revelation. Not only is everything within eyeline, but most things I work on, including word and PDF documents, web pages, my email inbox just work much better in this orientation. I can see a whole web or word page without having to scroll up and down. Search results pages in particular are so much easier to scan when all of the results are above the fold.
(An aside from this: If you do turn your screens, particularly if you’re standing, you’ll soon notice visitors either looking at you with confusion, or edging in towards your personal space. That’s because most screens these days have a very narrow viewing angle when looked at from below the normal bottom of the monitor. I my office, colleagues stand to the left of me and when I start pointing at things on the screen, they just see black. They can only see what you see by standing right next to you. I don’t know who you work with, so make your own judgement as to whether you want them sidling up to you.)