Share story

A few years ago, Paula Gustafson began noticing articles on standing desks blipping across Facebook. So when her knee started bothering her, she decided to give it a try.

“I found it felt better,” she said. Her employer at the time gave her a fancy chair, too, that could raise and lower along with her desk. “It was a cute tuffet of a thing, but I never used it.”

Not all employers, and not all desk setups, are quite like that. There are homemade rigs where computers are propped on towers of Coke cans; there are $4,000 treadmill desks for obsessive execs; and there is everything in between. Either way, if you’re among the sitters of the world, it might seem a little bit ridiculous — even ill conceived.

But Gustafson was hooked. And her knee felt better. Since then, she’s had two other jobs, including her current post at Highspot, in Seattle, a content-automation platform for marketing and sales, and she has convinced both employers to give her a standing desk.

Isn’t that hard on your back, the sitters inevitably ask people like Gustafson? Don’t you get tired?

Here are some answers:

Back pain, sitting and standing

About six months ago, Robert Catena, who just began a new job as assistant professor of kinesiology at Washington State University, started having serious back pain. He decided to stand, too.

“Basically, I piled a bunch of books underneath my monitor and keyboard,” he explained of his improvised desk setup. And his back pain went away.

Catena, who is starting a new Gait and Posture Biomechanics lab at WSU, said that as counterintuitive as it may sound, sitting puts more stress on the spine than standing.

“Our body is configured to stand. In our evolutionary history, people didn’t sit for long periods of time. They stood or they walked,” he said. “So sitting actually takes us out of our natural position.”

In a standing position, your spine is gently curved. “That curvature basically dampens the load of your body weight pushing down due to gravity,” Catena said.

Sitting, most of us tend to hunch forward, putting curves — and compression forces — where they don’t belong.

You’re not going to solve this problem by sitting bolt upright, either. Then you’ve got the dreaded “banana curve,” explained Kelly Starrett, a San Francisco physiotherapist who has written a book on improving mobility called “Becoming a Supple Leopard.” You’re slouching in reverse.

Now think about how long you sit in a typical day:

• Meals: one hour

• Driving: one hour

• Work or school: six-plus hours

• Television or computer at home: two hours

Beyond the back

You say you don’t have back pain? Well, that doesn’t let you off the hook.

When you sit, your entire body alignment changes. Standing, your body is like a tower and your musculature and connective tissue are like cables holding it upright, Starrett explained. When you sit, you’re changing the length of the cables — shortening some, lengthening others.

“What you’ve done is you’ve made this tight, kinked, high-tension system,” he said.

Go down the line: Sitting, you’re probably hunched over at the neck. Your diaphragm is restricted and you’re breathing differently. “You’re practicing stress breathing,” Starrett noted.

If you’re typing, your wrists are likely kinked. “It’s a mechanism for repetitive stress dysfunction,” he noted. Your pelvis is tilted unnaturally. “You basically shut off the pelvic floor,” he said. You’re not using your legs at all, even though they are meant to be your structural base.

“If you’re talking about converting from a sitting to a standing desk … you’re exercising your legs for six hours you wouldn’t otherwise,” Catena noted. That burns more calories and “essentially makes you a healthier individual.”

Stand for health?

“The research has been crystal clear,” Starrett said. “You literally cannot make a case for sitting.” The more you sit, the higher your chances of heart disease and diabetes. It can affect your metabolism and body fat.

“Do a little Google search,” Starrett said. “Sitting two hours is the equivalent of smoking two cigarettes. It’s that gnarly.”

Starrett, who specializes in improving mobility and optimizing performance in elite athletes, said he has come to see sitting as the root cause of a whole lot of his clients’ problems. But he also was shocked when he started noticing kids developing unhealthful movement patterns as early as first grade.

“Go into any classroom and observe the kids’ spines,” Starrett said. “You’ll be horrified.”

Starrett and his wife, Juliet, felt so strongly about the benefits of standing they bought adjustable standing desks for their daughter’s fourth-grade class. The desks have bars that kids can rest their foot on — a crucial feature in any standing desk, Starrett said, because it allows for movement and relieves tension.

They’re going to be gathering data on the school project and have set up a nonprofit in the hopes that they can help spread the idea to other schools.

In an interview the first week of school, Juliet said that so far, both kids and teachers seem generally happy with their new desks.

She heard that one child complained about sore legs after standing for 15-minute intervals.

“We don’t see that as a negative,” Juliet said. “If you’re sore after standing in 15-minute increments throughout the day, that’s evidence why this is the right thing to do.”

Gustafson and Catena have tips for that, too. Get a fatigue mat, Gustafson said. And when you feel like sitting, go for a walk down the hall instead, Catena said. It’ll readjust your alignment and help tired muscles relax.

Also, wear sensible shoes. “If I was somebody who wore heels,” Gustafson said, “it would be a different story.”

Former Seattle Times reporter Maureen O’Hagan, a freelance writer and editor, can be reached at