Get Up, Stand Up…Stand Up for Your (Desk) Rights…

True, Bob Marley had weightier matters in mind. But weight and other matters could become less of a problem if more of us stood up to work.

Recent research suggests that office workers who use a standing desk for at least part of the day have fewer health problems and may be more productive. (Here’s another good story about it from the website of Marketplace, the American Public Media radio show.) I had heard for years that it’s a good idea — and as the Business Week article linked above says, Churchill and others knew all about it. So why not give it a try?

I stood up from my nice conventional desk and walked around as I thought it over. Good standing desks are expensive, even though they are handsome and well-made — sometimes up to $2,000. IKEA has an solid inexpensive computer workstation that’s height-adjustable, but it doesn’t really match the decor of my home office. (It’s a lot of masculine brown and hardwoods, with terra cotta red on two walls.) As I pondered, my eye lit on my overflow bookcase.

Don’t worry; this is just a prototype. The golf clubs and sun hat stay, though.

I quickly grabbed a tape measure from my wife’s design studio. Thirty-six inches high. Let’s see, for a nearly-six-foot man, they recommend a 44-inch-high surface. Hm. A breakfast-in-bed-style tray? Turns out they’re a little low. Small ironing board? Same deal.

Necessity is the mother of corrugated cardboard. I rooted around in the garage until I found some old boxes in a few likely heights. Tossing a towel over them to guard against scratches and computer heat, I set about experimenting.

For me, a 7 1/2 inch-high box plus the height of the keyboard resulted in a comfortable typing position for my wrists, which can sit flat on the spaces made for them in front of the keyboard on my MacBook. But how about the standing part? I don’t usually wear shoes indoors, so it’s just me and the hardwood floor. After awhile, I felt the back of my calves begin to tighten up. O.K.; there’s an area that could benefit from some standing, or at least changing things up occasionally.

The conventional wisdom recommends alternate periods of standing and sitting until your frame gets used to full-time verticality at work. Meanwhile, I make-shifted another temporary solution regarding the floor. A yoga mat folded double, or even at single thickness, makes barefoot or stocking-foot standing much more comfortable.

Relief of that little pressure enabled me to explore other parts of my body while standing, and also to use body awareness techniques I have learned in yoga to get into good positions. Once the hand height on the keyboard was good, I could evaluate the shoulders. Hunched or relaxed? When the elbows drop down into position comfortably, the shoulders tend to relax too.

A follow-on benefit of good shoulder position is the opening — more like a relaxed spreading — of the chest. Sitting at conventional desks, working on computers, many of us have a tendency to pull our arms forward, closing the chest between the parentheses of the biceps. This is O.K. if you get up and stretch your chest open from time to time. But every so often, we all get busy, gets a head of productive steam on, and then look up and, oops, three solid hours of chest-crushing computer-sitting time has gone by. For me, that also comes with a tendency to turtle my neck forward, as if leaning toward the screen somehow jacks up my Calvin Trillin Factor and makes me a better writer.

But standing allows the muscles of your chest to spread out a bit, encouraging good, muscle-stacked posture with your spine in a comfortably straight position. You can feel a pleasant stretch between your pectoral muscles, and in your collarbone area. My neck tends to stay pillared in the proper place over my shoulders, instead of leaning forward too much.

With the upper half comfy, you can be aware of your knees: straight but not locked, feet flat on the floor or mat, about a foot apart inside-to-inside…and there you go.

I was surprised, once I stood easy, how long I could stay up and stay alert. Once in awhile, before any muscles fatigued, I would pick up something I needed to read and sit down at my “main” desk, or in the armchair near the bookshelf wall.  A break from standing — and looking at the monitor — was energizing.

All that remains is the question of whether to build a small table to elevate my keyboard as a permanent solution to the problem temporarily solved my cardboard box prototype, or buy something. Either way, I think I’m up, or mostly up, to stay. — Adam Barr


Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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