The ups and downs of standing desks

standing desk Lorna universal

Lorna Wong works at her standing desk

Prolonged sitting has been linked with muscle and joint discomfort and can increase risk for disease, including certain cancers. Even for those who are otherwise active, sitting for long periods of time may cancel out some of the health benefits gained from exercise.

So, what happens if your job requires that you spend the majority of your day at your desk? Some workers have started using height-adjustable desks, which allow them to quickly raise or lower workstations to accommodate a standing or seated position, as needed.

Lorna Wong, executive director of communications at UChicago Medicine, often spends several hours at her computer and has used a standing desk for more than a year. “I like the flexibility an adjustable desk provides, allowing me to stretch and move around, even as I am typing on the keyboard.”

UChicago Medicine’s Sara Wallace, MD, MPH, is an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in treating patients with hip and knee arthritis. She says that while height-adjustable desks can be beneficial overall, they should be customized for each user’s comfort and physical and health needs.

What are the benefits of using a standing or height-adjustable desk?

A standing desk has many potential advantages over the traditional desk. For one, it encourages movement throughout the work day. When in a standing position, we naturally shift and move our body as we work. Standing and movement helps to maintain healthy bones and joints. Particularly for individuals with arthritis, movement will help to reduce stiffness. Also, standing encourages the use of core muscles to maintain an upright posture, which is maintains a healthy spine and hip joint. It may also increase alertness while on the job.

Are there any drawbacks associated with standing desks?

For individuals with arthritis, constant weight bearing may worsen joint pain. Standing for long periods of time can also worsen leg swelling, particularly when someone is pregnant or has a condition that causes the veins to stay filled with blood, especially when standing. For these individuals, it is important to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day.

What are some “Do’s and Don’ts” for using a height-adjustable desk?

Do:

  • Position the desk at an appropriate working height, so that your wrists, elbows, shoulders, and back are neutrally aligned.
  • Remember to move throughout the day.
  • Take breaks from standing if you start to become fatigued.

Don’t:

  • Lean forward onto your desk, crouch or stoop from the low back.
  • Work in a standing position unless your computer or working material is accessible and visible to you at a comfortable height.
  • Make drastic changes: if you aren’t used to standing for long periods of time, transition to the standing position gradually, and as tolerated.

Wallace says that while switching between standing and sitting at the workstation can be beneficial, nothing beats a good walk to improve health: “Walking helps with good bone and joint health, even for someone with arthritis,” she said. “Instead of emailing or calling your coworker around the corner, walk over to talk with him or her in person; this type of movement and face-to-face interaction can improve both our physical as well as our psychological well-being.”

wallace-sara-highlight 320x324

Sara Wallace, MD

Sara Wallace, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in joint care. Dr. Wallace treats a wide range of common and complex hip and knee conditions, performing surgical procedures, such as minimally invasive knee and hip replacements, to restore mobility and reduce joint pain.

Learn more about Dr. Wallace