Does your back ache? Ever get shooting pains in your arms? For me, the answer to those questions, and any others involving nagging back pain, is yes.
I’ve seen doctors, tried exercises from physiotherapists, paid for massages, and guzzled painkillers to dull the persistent aches in my lower spine. I’ve had more than my fair share of pinched nerves. Now and then, I throw my back out badly enough to make walking in anything other than a shuffle a lofty ambition.
For a long time, I figured it was simply an occupational hazard, as my career requires me to spend long hours every day hunched over a computer. Then, I bought something that has all but vanquished my pain: an adjustable standing desk.
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Remember the flood of stories a few years ago that branded sitting as the new smoking? Headline after headline decried the sedentary lifestyle's negative impact on our health. Sitting was vilified, linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, back pain, muscular problems, and even depression. Standing desks came to the rescue. Presented as a panacea, they would get us on our feet again.
I was doubtful of that claim. Who wants to stand at their desk? It’s a fad, I thought. People look silly at standing desks. I worked in stores on my feet all day and all it left me with was sore feet. Besides, I’m a writer, and writers sit. Occasionally they pace, but there’s always a desk to sit at.
I held this view until the strange aches and pains started. I was spending hours in an old office chair, hunched over a battered desk every day. Neither piece of equipment was the right height or size for me, and the desk had an infuriating drawer under it that often scraped my legs. (I got them both from one of my mother’s regular clear-outs.)
After a house move, my wife and I began the slow and expensive process of clearing out the mismatched blend of worthless antiques and Ikea furniture that made up our collection. I had a new home office to kit out. Could I justify an expensive standing desk? Raving recommendations from friends and colleagues tipped the scales. I decided to join the ranks of standing desk owners. I obsessively researched the market and finally settled on the Fully Jarvis, a model with a curved bamboo desktop.
There was a little bit of assembly involved when the large, heavy boxes arrived, and I set about pulling the mysterious parts from their foam pockets. An hour later, the heavy black metal frame was built. Everything was wired up, with monitor arms attached to the classy, striped bamboo desktop. It looked fantastic; the final touch to the grown-up home office I always dreamed of.
A wee control panel slides from under the desk with arrows for up and down, and four presets for preferred heights. At first, the sheer futuristic joy of pressing a button and having the desktop move up and down on telescopic legs was irresistible. I changed heights at least 10 times a day.
After a while, I settled into a pattern. Stand for an hour or so with morning coffee and email, then sit for an hour or two to write. Rinse and repeat in the afternoon.
The Benefits of Standing
Those early news reports that kicked off the standing craze were filled with hyperbole, but the science was sound—and still is, as I learned in my research.
“High amounts of sitting during the day has been associated with heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and premature death,” says Edward Laskowski, a rehabilitation physician at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
These risks can be offset if you engage in “high volumes of moderate to vigorous physical activity.” But let’s be honest, most of us don’t. We know sitting is bad, but is standing at a desk going to be beneficial?
“Any movement is good movement, so changing position and standing throughout your day can be helpful,” Laskowski says. “Some studies show that blood sugars return to a normal level after a meal more quickly in a standing position, and standing may help to reduce shoulder and back pain.”
I certainly feel better since I got the standing desk. Not only do I stand more throughout the day, I now sit at a height that feels right for me. The arms of my chair are in a more comfortable position while I work. I’m not completely free of back pain, but there has been a dramatic downturn in debilitating bouts.
The desk also acts as a mental prompt that boosts my motivation. I’ve conditioned myself to conjure different mental states when the desk goes up or down—standing encourages me to clear small tasks quickly; sitting signals time for business—and I feel more productive as a result.
What to Try
If you’re tempted to try a standing desk, a model that converts your current desk or table into a sit/stand combo is a good way to dip your toe in the water. These are cheaper and work can be adjusted to various heights. We like and recommend this adjustable desk from Vari.
For anyone ready to dive straight in, the Fully Jarvis is easy to recommend, but it’s not perfect. The electric motor is quite noisy as the telescopic legs extend. There’s also no crossbar, so when I adjust to standing position, it’s not as stable. If I lean on the desk or bump it at full height, my monitor screens perceptibly wobble.
There are plenty of alternative standing desks worth looking at, from affordable options like Flexispot to the pricier VertDesk V3, both of which we've tested and given high marks. Just make sure you consider stability and height adjustment limits, and check the warranty and return policy.
It’s an investment, but one I'm glad I made.