Sitting down to work has only become the norm for the past few generations of modern workers. Michelangelo, Thomas Jefferson, and Ernest Hemingway all stood up when they worked. There's even evidence that large, communal tables built for standing around were common in workplaces from the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries.
So if standing workstations are nothing new, why are they back in the conversation now? For one thing, we're just getting around to dealing with the consequences of a much newer—and problematic—phenomenon: the way we use chairs.
Chairs became the focal point of office design as technology and automation reshaped modern industry. You had to sit in a chair to work at your typewriter, your telephone, and then your computer. The more jobs that came to rely on those sorts of activities, the more sedentary our work cultures became.
But before long, we began experiencing some of that culture's harmful consequences—from back and leg pain to more serious health issues. These days the research is substantial enough to justify the latest adage that "sitting is the new smoking." The idea clearly resonates with enough of us to support the growing array of new products designed to get us back on our feet at work—including standing desks, treadmill desks, and bike desks, just to make a few. Those devices have quickly moved from the faddish periphery into the mainstream. They've already emerged as tools that can only only improve our health but also improve our productivity.
I spoke with Kathleen Hale, CEO of Rebel Desk, who's on the forefront of the active-work-product movement. She tells me her customers see their benefits from across a range of industries and working styles. Tory Johnson, a host on ABC’s Good Morning America, has credited the Rebel treadmill desk she uses as a key factor in her recent weight-loss journey. A computer programmer bought a similar model from Rebel Desk after his chronic back pain got so debilitating that he had to lie down on his sofa every weekend. After using the treadmill desk for just a week, he later wrote, he was able to get back on his feet and go see a baseball game with some friends.
The latest research backs up experiences like these. In a recent study published in Preventing Chronic Disease, participants reported less fatigue, tension, and back pain when they switched to standing desks, then all those symptoms returned to normal levels when they went back to sitting. Another recent study found that using a treadmill desk correlated to boosts in attention and memory. And an analysis in Preventive Medicine examined 23 separate studies on active work products and found that workers who used them typically lost weight, saw boosts in "good" cholesterol, and reported less tension, fatigue, and stress, and more energy and sharper focus.
If you aren't already using a standing or walking workstation and want to give one a try, here are a few of your options:
"One of the most significant reservations...people have about standing desks is that they will have to stand all day," says Hale of Rebel Desk. But that's neither true nor advisable. An adjustable-height desk lets you alternate between periods of sitting and standing. You simply raise and lower your desk as you please.
You don't have to rush out and buy a special desk. You'd be surprised by the sorts of furniture hacks you can execute with just a little ingenuity and a screwdriver.
As a matter of fact, sometimes you don't even need that. I spend a portion of my workday working from the bar in my kitchen. One of my clients simply removed a few shelves from his company-issued bookcase to create his standing desk. If you have a treadmill that's become an all-purpose clothes rack, dust it off, turn it on its slowest speed, hop on it with some work reading.
You wouldn't start out a new weight-training program by picking up the heaviest weights in the gym. Same goes for incorporating standing into your workday. "Regardless of how physically fit you are, you'll be surprised by the impact on your body," says Hale. Try to make your first goal standing for two hours each day then work up to four hours.
Don’t trade a static, sitting position for a static, standing position. There are health risks from standing in one position all day—varicose veins, back and feet pain. Change your work position throughout your workday. For example, you may walk around your office while listening to a conference call on your headset, outline the new marketing strategy while standing, and then respond to emails while sitting.
Think about where you can add more walking or standing into your commute. If you always sit down on the train, try standing up for a few stops. If you walk to work, walk around the block one more time heading inside your office. If you drive to work, park as far away from the front door as possible. Instead of plopping down around the conference table, ask your team to gather around in a loose circle standing up. Once a week, try only checking social media while you're standing. Choose one meal a day to eat on your feet—for me, that's breakfast at the kitchen counter. The point is, these small changes can make a significant difference in your health and long-term productivity.
Advances in technology revolutionized the way we work. But they've come with a cost. A sedentary lifestyle can seriously damage our performance and well-being. Standing, walking, or even pedaling while working isn't just a fad. It's a productive, healthy solution to problems of our own—pretty recent—making.