To stand, or not to stand …

I tried a $22 standing desk. Here’s why I’m never going back to sitting ☺


Two months ago I built a $22 standing desk. (I wrote about it in my blog.) In that post, I described the setup and talked about my initial impressions. Two months later, I’m ready to exalt its benefits in both my posture and productivity. There are of course some downsides to working at a standing desk, and I’ll touch on those too.

Why Standing?

First, quick aside on why I considered switching to a standing desk in the first place. In my office, we all have fancy office chairs. (I think the Aeron ones.) But despite having access to $700 ergonomic chairs, I was in constant PAIN. Even few hours of sitting would result in throbbing lower back pain, stiff traps, and aching shoulder blades. That was also true at home, where I had a low-end office chair and a different desk setup. At some point I was spending my pathetic graduate student stipend on massages!

Furthermore, whenever I got frustrated with coding or answering an email, I would hunch over my laptop like Gollum. If I caught myself doing that and shifted to the 135 degrees position, I would feel sluggish, lazy and unproductive.
I tried this. It does what the captions says. But it made me feel slothful and highly unproductive.

A friend and office mate, @Ben_Reinhardt, had read the $22 standing desk article and had already built his own. I decided to do the same. There is no IKEA in Ithaca, NY, so the components came from Target and Lowe’s (details here). By the way, since then more people in ouroffice, around one out of four, have switched to a standing desk. Ben upgraded to the Kangaroo.

The Physical Benefits

I followed this when calculating the height of my computer screen and keyboard/mouse.

After switching to the standing desk, I felt almost immediate and lasting relief of back and shoulder pain. I was amazed. I thought it was some sort of placebo effect. I’m no expert, so I did some research.

Neck: Slumping forward overextends the shoulder and back muscles as well, particularly the trapezius, which connects the neck and shoulders.
Lower back: When we move around, soft discs between vertebrae expand and contract like sponges, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. But when we sit for a long time, discs are squashed unevenly. Collagen hardens around supporting tendons and ligaments.
Legs: Flexible hips help keep you balanced, but chronic sitters so rarely extend the hip flexor muscles in front that they become short and tight, limiting range of motion and stride length.

These quotes are from this great Washington post article, which features a great visual overview of all sorts of health problems that sitting all day can cause. From back pain to organ damage to muscle degeneration. There’s no point in rehashing the points in that article. They are very well presented there. A PDF poster version of the graphic in that article is available here.

By the way, the author of this Medium story, as well as a few other people that use standing desks, have mentioned leg and/or feet pain caused by prolonged standing. This can by alleviated, and even eliminated, simply by taking your shoes off and standing on an anti-fatigue comfort mat. (Another great suggestion by @Ben_Reinhardt.) Unfortunately, this mat is more expensive that the standing desk itself, but in my opinion it’s totally worth it.

I’m currently writing a draft of this Medium story at a Starbucks. I’ve been sitting here for a mere hour, but I’m already catching myself slouching forward, resting my head on my hand, and letting my back support my weight, as opposed to my abs. This never happens at my standing desk.

The Benefits on Productivity

If the only benefits of using a standing desk were physical, that might not have been enough to convince me to stick with the standing desk. But there were some additional, unexpected, positive side-effects!

I realized that sitting down was preventing me from breathing deeply, from my belly. Standing up gives the diaphragm and abdomen enough space to expand.

This sounds like a physical benefit, but I’m mentioning it here because diaphragmatic breathing allows me to stay relaxed and clear-headed.

I also feel more active and engaged with my work. I no longer have the option of slouching when things get boring, or hunching forward when a piece of code is particularly frustrating. It goes without saying that I feel more productive and I am more productive when using a standing desk.

There are some other, minor benefits. For example, when somebody comes over to my desk to discuss a work-related topic, I don’t have to stand up from my chair, or find them a chair. When can both stand and share my computer screen, since it’s already at eye-level. In addition, I find myself spending less time on Facebook and YouTube. It sounds silly, but since pretty much everybody can see my screen, I tend to avoid such distractions. Finally, it forced me to declutter my desk area. I also got a desk organizer since the amount of “elevated real-estate” is limited (see previous photo).

A few Downsides

As you have realized by now, this standing desk setup cost much more than $22; probably around $120. However, that’s still cheaper than professional standing desks. Even a grad student can afford it.

Standing for 8-10 hours a day is of course tiring; I won’t deny that. But if I’m standing, it’s much easier to take a step back and strech for 30 seconds. Also, when I really need to rest, I simply sit on a nearby couch, read a Medium story, and go back to work. That short break is more than enough.

Another downside is related to the kind of work that I do. I often have to spend a few hours writing down math, drawing, and brainstorming for my research. I have not found a way to do that on my standing desk yet. I just pull up a chair and do that kind of work sitting down. I’ve also tried writing on my laptop, which rests in front of my external monitor with its lid closed (see previous photo). The height is pretty good for writing, but the keyboard and mouse are in the way. So one way to get a proper elevated writing area would be to place a second Target/IKEA table next to the first one. Then I could just turn slightly and start scribbling away happily! If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment☺

A downside of having an elevated computer monitor is lack of privacy. I personally don’t mind that since I want to avoid Facebook-ing and YouTube-ing anyway. Sometimes I also have to Skype at work so I have to choose between broadcasting the other person’s face all over the office and using a meeting room. I’d rather do the latter anyway, since I don’t wanna talk loudly in my office.

That’s all Folks!

All in all, I feel very strongly about the benefits of working on a standing desk. However, I realize that not all of my points apply to everyone reading this. So by all means, if you are not experiencing pain or any other issues with sitting, don’t worry about switching to a standing desk.

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I also blog about technology, travel, and books weekly at www.smaniato.me