This month marks my one-year anniversary of using a standing desk. The past 12 months have taught me a lot, and not just about why sitting all the time is bad for you. It taught me how to take a hard look at lifestyle habits and make positive changes. The benefits of a standing desk have made a huge impact on my life.
I can tell you right now I will never go back to a traditional desk. I dealt with back pain, tight and sore hips and was frequently tweaking my shoulders while training, until I made the switch. Just standing every day didn't fix those problems, though. It is not a magic fix. Nothing that actually works is. It takes a lot of hard work, constant awareness and the fervent desire to get better. Not being able to stand all day, "just because you can't," is a surefire way to make sure it won't be successful.
I see lots of people getting hung up on whether standing is better than sitting and vice versa. Don't think about it like that, though. Moving is better than being stationary. Period. If you stand, but you're in an awful position—feet turned out, ankles collapsed, hips tilted forward—spending the day there is no better than sitting hunched over your keyboard.
The Advantages of Standing
Standing gives you instant access to more movement. You can stand on one leg, cross your legs, put one leg on a stool or step, lean to one side or the other and stand with your feet together or far apart. It gives you positional options, meaning you can access a better position easier.
I see this all the time: Someone tells me they can do a good job of sitting in a chair. They usually overextend their back, meaning they arch too hard to get upright or they cannot maintain the position for more than a couple of minutes.
It's also hard to hold the standing positions for more than a few minutes, but it is much easier to find and recognize the right, stable positions to be in. What I mean is that if you screw your feet into the ground, squeeze your butt a bit, and make sure your abs are on just enough that if I slapped you on the belly it wouldn't hurt, you're in a good position. While sitting, it's impossible to do those things to properly stabilize yourself.
It probably took me 4 to 5 months of constant standing to get comfortable in that position. I had to always be aware of what my body was doing. I have the tendency (as do a lot of people with athletic backgrounds) to be overextended in the lower back, or to have anterior pelvic tilt. So, while initially standing, when I would get tired, my body would naturally want to find that overextended position. That's how I was finding stability when I forgot to stand properly. I call this hanging on your spine.
The only cure for hanging on your spine is constant awareness. Every time I felt myself starting to slip, I adjusted how I was standing and screwed in my feet and squeezed my butt, which tilted the hips back toward a neutral position. Now, there were some days when I stood too much, or just wasn't cognizant of how I was standing. To combat that, I made sure to get myself into some flexion at night, either by sitting on the couch for a bit or hanging out in the bottom of a Squat or hopping on the floor and spending a few minutes in child's pose.
During those first 4 to 5 months, I ended up with a sore back now and then, nothing serious, just enough to know something was off.
I also had some foot discomfort. Not pain, or an injury, but my heels were a little sensitive at night and my arches were sore once in a while. I combated this with regular maintenance to my feet with a lacrosse ball, dowel rod, PVC pipe or anything else I could roll them on. After time, they adapted.
I've had no issues with my feet after that initial discomfort. Your body has to adapt to the new positions and the increased volume of movement. The change won't happen quickly, but it won't happen at all unless you're willing to deal with them. You must be intelligent and listen to your body. Back off when you need to and pull up a chair.
Where to Start
You won't be able to stand all day right out of the gate. I think two hours is a good starting point for most people. If you're at your desk for six hours, try standing for two. For some people, consecutive hours are the way to go. Others may be more comfortable standing for a portion of each hour throughout the day. You need to experiment and try for yourself. One possible negative effect is that I developed a bad habit of shifting all my weight to my left leg. It doesn't help that when I'm coaching, I demo exercises on that side as well. Because of that, I developed a slight hip shift that I started noticing on my Squat when I would go heavy or get fatigued. I am now diligent in noticing which leg I lean on, trying not to overuse the left side.
Although there were a few negative side effects I had to deal with along the way, the positives are too many to count. My energy levels are better during the day. No more sitting down to do work and not getting a good start. I have better focus when I am standing—although I think sometimes sitting helps me think a little differently. What I mean is that if I'm editing a video or trying to write something creative, it's sometimes easier to focus while sitting. So, when I'm really not in the mood to stand, I take the laptop to the floor.
My hips and low back have never felt better. I'm always at the ready to do anything. I used to take forever to warm up for a training session. Now, I know everything is operating smoothly and there are no kinks to work out. The way that I carry myself has significantly improved. People are always shocked when they find out I'm barely 6 feet tall. This was an unexpected benefit, but I have seen studies that show how much of an impact the way you carry yourself can have, not only on your mood but the way other people perceive you.
So, my advice to you is ditch the chair. Get rid of it yesterday and never look back. Make sure you know how to stand before you start. And take it slow; it isn't a rush to the finish line. Incrementally adding standing time each week or month is a great way to transition. If something gets irritated or sore, most likely it's your body adapting to the change. Don't ignore it, but be proactive and take care of it.
Here's a free tip: Even if your feet don't hurt after a week or two, spend five minutes rolling them while you're standing each day. It's a simple, preventative measure to ensure success.
You can read more details about how and why I transitioned to a standing desk here.
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