Ups and downs of standing desks

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Standing desks were all the rage … until someone said they do more harm than good. Jamie Thomson explains why there is a stand-up fight between sitters and standers.

If you’ve recently heaved that comfy leather chair out of your home office window and frenetically searched the web to buy a standing desk because you read that “sitting is the new smoking,” the current backlash against upright office activity may have stopped you in your tracks.

This may be bad news for ABC radio which last years spent tens of thousands of dollars converting its massive studio desks – complete with control panels – into platforms that rraise and lower like the flight desk of Dr Who’s Tardis.

But it was only a matter of time.  Most innovations that are initially seen as good advice,  then are overzealously pronounced as the answer to every problem, be it obesity or lack of productivity, tend to get picked apart, unfairly or not.

Besides, those of us that work in an office near someone with a standing desk can’t quite escape the feeling that we’re being overseen by a Dickensian schoolmaster. It’s no surprise that some of us might not be the biggest fan of this particular ergonomic milestone.

So, yes, standing desks have taken a bit of beating recently. Sitting too long for too often, as the oft-cited “just as bad as smoking” study by the Mayo Clinic’s Dr James Levine states, certainly isn’t that great for you, but researchers at Cornell University have hit back, retorting that standing around isn’t all that great either.

Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environment Analysis at Cornell, says: “If what you’re doing is replacing sitting with standing, you’re not actually doing your body any favours. In fact, you’re introducing a whole variety of new risk factors.”

And Levine himself concedes that just standing, as opposed to sitting, isn’t going to make a huge difference; it’s what you do when you’re standing that counts.

“Step one is get up. Step two is learn to get up more often. Step three is, once you’re up, move,” he says. “And what we’ve discovered is that once you’re up, you do tend to move.”

Think of the standing desk as a launch pad, rather than a be-all-and-end-all – anything that gets you up and about can’t be viewed as a bad thing. And maybe don’t use it for tasks where sitting down and concentrating has achieved a better end product.

So, as with so many healthy innovations that get dragged in the realm of fads, it seems that moderation and compromise “a little bit from column A; a little bit from column B” is the best o
ption. Which is why sitting/standing desks, like those offered by Varidesk or Ergotron, are a safer bet. Choose when to remain sedentary when it suits you, but work out when standing will have the most benefits. A study cited by authoritynutrition.com showed that “standing for 180 minutes after lunch reduced the blood sugar spike by 43% compared to sitting for the same amount of time”.

Permanent standing desks can be purchased for less than $200 but unless you are used to them, the adjustable ones – either electrically or manually – are a better bet, even if they’ll cost closer to $500 … and then some.

And if that really doesn’t work for you, maybe it’s time to consider something a little more dynamic? But be warned, recent studies show that walking while working may keep you fitter but it can also affect concentration and accuracy while you are doing it.

Phew! I need a seat!

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