“Sitting is the new smoking,” has become a catch phrase suddenly being espoused by a fast growing number of medical experts around the world. There is plenty of evidence to support the claims that our chair-oriented sedentary lifestyle is taking huge tolls on both our health and our economic productivity, and it’s probably even truer for the deskbound office worker or exec than the couch surfer due to the nonstop hours at our computers. Between cars, couches and desks, Americans spend about half their lives sitting – and that does not include sleeping.
Fortunately it is very easy to improve the healthfulness of your workspace, whether it’s located in a corporate setting or at home. In fact, I am doing it right now as I type these words.
The World Health Organization identified physical inactivity as the fourth biggest killer on the planet – ahead of obesity. In addition to the obvious back and neck problems affiliated with sitting at computers all day, substantial evidence has linked sitting to everything from cancer to heart disease, diabetes to depression, and like smoking, it harms you even if you get exercise when not doing it.
Or to put it in the simplest terms, “The chair is out to kill us,” as James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine, told the LA Times. A study cited by the Times from the Center for Personalized Health Care at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center calculated that every hour spent sitting shortens our life by 22 minutes – twice as much as smoking a cigarette. Numerous studies done in the US, Canada, Australia and Britain have all confirmed the same thing – sitting exacts a huge health toll on us individually and as a society. Evidence is so rampant that the related conditions have been coined “Sitting disease” and “Silicon Valley disease.” According to British studies cited in the Daily Mirror, the cost to the UK economy just in sick days due to sitting-related back, neck and muscle problems costs the country around $1.7 billion annually.
Because of the direct costs associated with sitting, more and more companies are offering employees the option of using a stand-up desk, a recently created invention that typically raises and lowers the workspace so office workers can alternate between sitting and standing while still working. According to leading manufacturer VARIDESK, Denmark just became the first country to make the workplace choice mandatory. It’s the adjustable feature that makes stand-up desks new – fans of the concept love to cite evidence that everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Hemingway and Victor Hugo to DaVinci used permanent stand up desks to do their best work.
I was offered the opportunity to test one of VARIDESK’s models in my home office, and have been using it for just over a month, and frankly, I love it. I’m certainly the target audience – I travel a lot, but when I am home, I am often at my desk for 12 plus hours a day, including lunch, which I eat while sitting – or now, while standing (experts will tell you eating at your desk is another bad health habit, so shame on me). Because I do exercise a lot and am very active, I don’t suffer from back pain or many of the other office bound complaints, so I can’t comment on how standing affects those, but as a longtime runner and cyclist I can definitely attest that I feel work going on in my leg muscles, which has to be better than the no work I feel while sitting, and I am eagerly looking forward to ski season because I believe the standing will make a marked improvement in my ski endurance, which also largely involved standing. My posture is definitely better while standing – and since standing. While I have only been at it for four weeks, my yoga teacher remarked twice in the past week – with marvel – that my long-term shoulder hunch, a classic typing condition, has disappeared and that my neck is straighter. This is after nearly ten years of yoga with her. The first day I used the VARIDESK I stood for about an hour before my calves complained and I sat back down. In less than two weeks I was spending more than half the day on my feet, and I now typically stand all morning and into the early afternoon. As I said, I’m standing right now, and I would heartily recommend the concept to anyone I know. Some desk jockeys have taken it a step further and added treadmills or stationary bikes to the stand-up lifestyle but for most, just standing intermittently will be a huge improvement over sitting all the time.
But not all standing desks are equal. My wife’s employer, a major, venerable and very well endowed higher education institution, offered her a standing desk but used a variant on what’s become known as the “Ikea standing desk hack.” Numerous plans are offered online to cobble together your own standing desk with off the shelf parts from Ikea (or other housewares stores) for between $22-$80 depending on the author. The problem with most of these, including my wife’s, is that like throwbacks to DaVinci, they don’t go down. Once you are up, you are up forever, and most people do need to sit for some portion of their hour work day. My wife’s solution, hardly ideal, is to use her desktop PC while standing and switch to her laptop when sitting.
It’s much, much better if the desk goes up and down. The biggest barriers to stand-up entry are cost and commitment. Most quality standing desks run into the four figures, and models adding a treadmill can top $4,000. The top pick of my favorite critical gear testing site, TheWireCutter.com, the NextDesk Terra, “starts at $1,500.” Many of these pricier models use electronics to raise and lower the desk which, while convenient (unless they break), seems like overkill given that mechanical systems with hydraulics or hinges work just as quickly and easily and seem bulletproof in their design. After all, many office chairs are adjustable but how many are electronically adjustable?
In addition, all standalone stand-up desks are replacements that require you to chuck your existing desk, which is a one-time hassle and a long term annoyance if you happen to really like your desk.
What I love about the VARIDESK solution is that it offers the full up and down flexibility you need in a standing desk with a low price point and easy adoption. Instead of an actual desk, it is sort of pedestal base that goes right on top of your existing desk, under your computer, adding about three inches of height when down. It raises and lowers very quickly and easily with heavy duty steel accordion hinges, offering a lot of variable height options. The model I’m using is the VARIDESK Pro Plus, which has a separate and more ergonomic keyboard shelf in front at a different height, and can accommodate two monitors simultaneously, perfect for stock traders, or a regular monitor and a laptop. It is very rugged and well-designed, took me less than 10 minutes to fully install by myself, and runs just $350 – making it the most expensive of the company’s four models.
There are a couple of minor caveats. Whatever standing desk solution you choose, I would definitely also add an anti-fatigue floor mat. VARIDESK’s is $50 and kitchen supply stores also sell them for stove bound professional chefs. The model I am using works better if you have all your cords long enough and organized enough so that the monitor can easily move around independently of the actual computer (not an issue with a laptop). You have to be careful about cords, especially the mouse, because the moving parts, the hinges, are heavy duty and will trash anything that gets caught in them (they are well concealed from fingers). But I’ve yet to actually harm any cords, and overall, the unit works just great and in terms of value it is almost impossible to beat. But however you go stand up, I emphatically suggest going stand-up.