If you’re going to start standing up at your desk at work, don’t kid yourself: You’re going to attract attention.
Fortunately, I have my co-worker Monica.
When we started this little experiment six months ago, we fielded lots of questions. “Why are you standing?” some passing writer or editor would ask as we stood like sentries along one of the main newsroom thoroughfares.
“Because we don’t want to die!” Monica would answer dramatically.
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What did I need to add after that?
The truth is, I wasn’t worried about dying when I began conniving to get a stand-up desk. Instead, I might label it fear of the blahs.
Over the years, I had concluded that sitting all day made me sluggish, less focused. On top of that, my neck and shoulders were routinely tight, and sometimes the pain interfered with my sleep.
The more I read about the benefits of standing at work — a lower risk of obesity, cancer and death and a boost in mood and alertness — the more I wanted a stand-up desk. I learned that even regular exercise might not protect me from the damaging effects of sitting too much. To top it off, someone my weight could burn about 310 more calories a day just by standing at work.
When I first stood at my stand-up desk I was excited to see what difference it would make. But there was some trepidation: How long would I be able to hack standing up?
The answer: not so long.
I sacrificed my love of high-heeled boots, but even in my sensible heels and with short periods sitting at meetings or strolling to lunch or to chat at a reporter’s desk, my feet began to ache before the day was half over. The newsroom floor of thin carpet over concrete was too hard. I considered keeping more-cushioned shoes in my file cabinet to get me through the afternoon, but vanity got in the way. After about 3½ to four hours of standing, I plopped into my chair for the rest of the day.
I was determined not to surrender, and after a few weeks I noticed I did feel more energized. Standing up, it seemed, was priming my brain for action even if it was killing my feet. I ordered a mat filled with soft gel — the kind you use for standing to wash dishes — and pretty soon I could go another three hours without sitting.
Then about six weeks ago, I began to feel a fleeting numbness in the toes of my right foot. My lower calf felt alternatingly pricked and uncomfortably warm.
I made an appointment with my doctor. He checked the blood pressure in my ankle and my upper arm. It was roughly equal, meaning peripheral arterial disease was unlikely. He asked a bunch of questions about my personal and family health history.
The doctor’s conclusion: I was standing too much at work. Those uncomfortable sensations were probably a result of hyperextending my knee, which could put too much pressure on the fibular nerve, a branch of the sciatic nerve that starts behind the knee and runs alongside the fibula, or calf bone. This can also occur when you cross your legs a lot while sitting.
As it turns out, you must check your posture constantly and move around, whether you sit or stand at work, because standing all day can be as bad as prolonged sitting. According to a 2005 study in Denmark, the incidence of hospitalizations as a result of varicose veins was higher among those who stand or walk at least 75 percent of their time at work. The risk of hardening of the arteries was dramatically greater as well, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley said after a study conducted in 2000.
Of course, nurses and factory workers have known this for some time, but it seems to be largely forgotten in the stand-up-desk trend.
As for me, my doctor’s diagnosis of my leg pains did not prompt me to dismantle my stand-up desk. Now I follow my body’s cues. When I begin to feel lethargic or my neck or shoulders bother me, I shift to standing, and almost immediately my muscles relax and I feel more energized. If my legs or feet later begin to ache, I’ll take the experts’ advice and elevate one foot or plop into my chair. And I try to move a lot more in general — rolling my shoulder, shaking out my limbs, walking to chat instead of emailing, or visiting the water fountain down the hall.
And when I want to wear high-heeled boots, I sit most of the day.