Should You Get a Standing Desk?
Ergonomics is big business. There are countless companies developing and marketing chairs, desks, keyboards, mousepads and more that all promise the same thing: healthier work.
Some ergonomic equipment costs nothing at all, like simply stacking your screen on a box to set it to a more comfortable height, while others cost small fortunes, like desk chairs with price tags that rocket into the thousands.
One of the latest and most successful ergonomic products is the standing desk, marketed to workplaces and work-from-home professionals as a way of undoing the damage of extended sitting – which causes numerous health problems from back pain to cardiovascular diseases.
But do they work?
It’s all gone chair shaped
Undoubtedly, the human body is better suited to standing than sitting. When we sit, hip flexors can become tight, our backs and shoulders overextended and our cores become disengaged.
But just because standing is better in theory, doesn’t mean that it’s better for you.
If you’ve spent years of your life sitting and if you’re not very active, you probably don’t stand very well. The classic posture of the desk-bound is the anterior pelvic tilt, where your belt-line slopes forward, putting excess pressure on your lumbar spine while lengthening your glutes and your abdominal muscles.
Also common is a tight chest and weak shoulders/upper back muscles leading to shoulders that slope forward and a hunched upper back.
These postural problems are a result of your body becoming adapted to sitting, as if it’s trying to pull your posture back into a sitting position even when you’re standing. You can’t expect a body adapted to sitting to be able to switch to standing without any issue.
In fact, if you don’t resolve these postural problems, a standing desk is no better for you than a sitting desk. I’ve seen many clients who have switched to standing desks and have complained that their back problems have only become worse.
This is no surprise: those weak and unbalanced muscles suddenly find themselves having to deal with loads they’ve likely never encountered before, exacerbating the pains that the standing desk is – in theory – supposed to resolve.
We’re not made to sit or stand, we’re made to move
Even if you do have a healthy and balanced standing posture, a standing desk is still going to lead to pain if you work for hours on end without changing position. I’ve treated security guards and bouncers who, despite rarely sitting at work, still develop back pain and other conditions typical to desk work.
The culprit is simply not moving, as I explained in my last blog, “Your Best Posture is Your Next Posture”. If a muscle has to remain contracted for 20-30 minutes or more, it will eventually become exhausted. Over time, this leads to chronic pain and increased risk of acute injury as the muscle is unable to take further load.
Why not both?
So far, things may sound a bit doom and gloom for the standing desk, but despite the caveats, I still recommend them. Standing is better for you than sitting and it’s easier to move about when you’re not planted in a chair.
But you need to ease yourself into it, and if you have any postural problems, standing isn’t going to magically fix them and may in fact make them worse. You also – just like at a normal desk – need to regularly change position and find ways to integrate more movement into your day.
The best option, rather than a fixed standing desk, is an adjustable desk that can slide up and down to your preferred height, letting you switch between sitting and standing as you like, giving you access to a wide range of postures throughout your day and allowing you to take a break when standing becomes tiring.
Of course, these are more expensive than a fixed standing desk, but it’s hard to recommend a fixed standing desk that would still present many of the problems as a normal desk but at a higher cost.
If you’re planning to switch to a standing desk and would like an assessment and treatment for any postural problems to help you ease into this new way of working, book an appointment now by calling 0207 937 1628 or emailing email@example.com, and you can always contact me for advice at david.wynne@westlondonphysio.
David Wynne BSc (Physio) MSc (Sports and Exercise Medicine) MCSP MHCP
Musculoskeletal and Sports Physiotherapist, Research Lead at West London Physiotherapy