Urgent Personal Question is a column about the sort of obvious questions we sometimes ask each other in Slack. Answers come from our co-workers who always seem more knowledgeable.
Now that I’m working from home for the unforeseeable future, I’ve been experimenting with a makeshift standing desk. But what if I stand with poor posture? Is my desk still good for me then?
— Bridget, staff writer
Trying to figure out whether a standing desk is good or bad for you is a lot like trying to figure out whether your name means something unfortunate or something flattering: If you search around the internet enough, you can find whatever answer you want.
Standing desks ease back pain and improve productivity. Or, wait — they worsen back pain and lower productivity. They burn a bunch of calories. Or wait — according to a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, they only burn eight more calories per hour (88) than sitting (80).
It’s safe to say, at least, that many of the assumed benefits of the standing desk were assumed as such based mostly on the known detriments of constant sitting — heart disease, obesity, certain kinds of cancer, even death. A comprehensive review of the studies associated with standing desks, published in the journal Applied Ergonomics in 2019, however, found that the claims didn’t always check out and that the desks, if used improperly, could actually have a detrimental effect on the user. Some benefits were possible, though — a small decrease in blood pressure, a bit of low-back-pain relief — if the desk was used correctly. “In order to achieve positive outcomes with sit-stand desks,” Dr. April Chambers, the study’s lead author, told Science Daily, “we need a better understanding of how to properly use them; like any other tool, you have to use it correctly to get the full benefits out of it.”
So, Bridget, I reached out to Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone’s Spine Center, for some advice on how you might safely and correctly go about using your standing desk.
“It’s all about the posture and changing positions,” he said.
Staying in any one position for a long period of time is going to mess with your health and cause back pain, so it’s best to move around a little. “In general,” Goldstein said, “the way to put the least amount of stress on your lower back is to lie down.” This is lucky for me, as I currently do almost all of my typing from bed, like Proust. “In a corporate office, they probably frown upon that, but when you’re at home, nobody knows.” Wow. Who’s healthy now, Bridget?
So lying on your back is the least amount of stress you can put on it. Sitting puts less stress on your back than standing, Goldstein told me, but if you’re hunched over or slouching, you’re not going to get that benefit. Standing puts more stress on your back than sitting, but it’s not any worse than sitting for an extended period of time. “So it’s about focusing on changing positions,” Goldstein said, “and, in each position, being mindful of your posture.”
When you’re sitting in a chair, try not to slouch, have some lumbar support, and after sitting for a while, get up and stand. When you’re standing, make sure you’re standing up straight and that your desk is ergonomically correct (more on that in a second). Then, maybe, spend a little time lying down. “It may be difficult for you to work when you’re lying on your back,” Goldstein said, but if you can — and I personally do recommend it — use a pillow under or between your knees to help with spinal alignment.
But how do you make sure a standing desk is ergonomically correct? “Make sure the height of your computer is even with your eyes so you’re not bending or extending your neck,” Goldstein said. You also don’t want to be too close to the desk or the screen, and you want to make sure the keyboard and mouse are positioned so you don’t have to reach or flex your wrist too much. “Some people will even put a soft mat under their feet to help them move slightly,” he said, “shifting their weight from one side to the other.” This small movement will help with stiffness and circulation.
As for things to avoid with a standing desk, the main one is hunching over it. “That’s going to put even more stress on your back and neck.” And if your back is bothering you, don’t work through it; that means it’s time to sit or lie down for a bit. Find a position that doesn’t cause you pain. Take care of yourself, Bridget. I love you.