KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Friday, June 01, 2012

Why I'm a Convert to Standing at Work

Standing while I edit at my new sit–stand desk
I love my new sit–stand desk. When I stand while I work, I feel more alert, more in charge, physically lighter, unchained from my desk, and more cheerful. Using standing desks or sit–stand desks is becoming popular, in part because other people have experienced those same feelings when they stand on the job rather than sit. Gut-level enjoyment is what will get more people to stick with standing at work after they try it. But there are other reasons to avoid sitting all day long, ones that I find compelling.

The Backstory
I've been self-employed full time since January 1995. I edit all day long, and for most of those 17 years, I sat all day long too. I sat in front of my computer, which itself sat in a roll-around computer cart in a corner of my kitchen, because my home is small and has no spare room eligible for conversion to an office. Hardcover and paperback reference works, copies of journals I had edited, and paperwork sat stacked wherever I could find a bare countertop, because I had no office shelves. I had no real desk, so I glommed the kitchen breakfast table.

My sit–stand desk lowered for seated editing
I gave birth to two boys, one in December 1994 (a mere 2 weeks before I began freelancing full time) and one in 2001. When they were very young, I would do things to squeeze in more work to compensate for the time it took to care for them. For example, when they were babies, I often wore them in a sling-style cloth carrier, and they would fall asleep in the sling as they were breastfeeding. A happy baby meant I could work without interruption for a while. Later when they were mobile, I would close all the baby gates so that they were closed into my workspace with me, as if we were toddlers together inside a giant playpen. As they played with toys and crawled and then toddled nearby, I worked at my computer, seated. I often took time out to play with them or read to them, but I was sitting as I did so.

The Equation of Consequences
It didn't occur to me back then that I could edit while standing. I thought that standing at work was for people with very physical jobs, like my husband, who is a cabinetmaker. There aren't many work-related tasks that he can do while seated. If he's not on his feet moving around, he's not making money. But editing doesn't require walking back and forth from one piece of equipment to another, so because I was hyperfocused on building my editing business, my personal motto became "If I'm not sitting, I'm not earning." Eventually I encountered this equation:

constant sitting + a disinclination to exercise (a family tradition!) + three cesarean sections (my daughter was born in 1983, well before I began freelancing) + a carbohydrate-heavy diet (another Southern family tradition!) + a family history of diabetes (type 1 in my father and type 2 in my mother) = a gradual weight gain of 139 pounds, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and type 2 diabetes

By 2010, I was taking several medications for diabetes, plus medications for hypertension (high blood pressure), hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol levels), and hypothyroidism (underfunctioning thyroid). That's expensive. And it's emotionally distressing, especially because I am a medical editor: I know all about healthy behaviors, including getting exercise and eating a low-carb diet rich in fruits and veggies. But I hadn't been engaging in those healthy behaviors. So I changed the way I eat. I didn't "go on a diet." I changed the types of foods I eat and the quantities of food that I eat. The glycemic index is my friend. I'd stopped drinking soda years ago because I know what all that sugar can do to the body on so many levels. I began losing weight. But it didn't go very quickly, and every afternoon after lunch, I still felt sluggish and mentally dull. What was I doing wrong?

I wasn't moving. It was that simple. Sit all day long, and you'll lose muscle tone. Sit all day long, and you don't use much energy, so your body ends up with too much fuel hanging around that it doesn't burn off. Sit all day long, and your blood doesn't circulate as well as it should. That leaves you at risk for deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the major veins), pulmonary embolism (blockage of blood vessels in the lungs by blood clots), and all sorts of other nasty physical consequences. I began reading more and more articles about the effects of too much sitting, and I became determined to find a way to stand while I work.

The Dream
I prefer working on desktop computers to working on laptops, so I wasn't going to get a laptop and just move from room to room in my house, standing sometimes and sitting other times. I came across a blog post by freelance translator Corinne McKay about her "treadmill desk." (Be sure to read her follow-up post.) This part of her post excited me:

Exercising while you work has been in the news of late, ever since Dr. James Levine, an obesity researcher at the Mayo Clinic, posited the idea that most desk-based workers would lose about 50 pounds a year if they walked at a very slow (1 mile per hour or less) speed while working, rather than sitting in a chair.

I tracked down an article about Levine in USA Today. But though I dreamed about getting his Walkstation, I knew that I couldn't afford $4,000-plus for a desk. And I read this article, which led me to the GeekDesk. That was much more affordable but still a large chunk of money. So I gave up on the idea for a while.

At my old improvised standing desk
But Cabinetmaker Husband had a temporary solution. He built a foldable box that I could set atop my computer cart's rollout so that I could place my keyboard and mouse on it to raise them to a level that I found comfortable for working while standing. It worked great and was very cheap. But it was heavy. And I found it a pain to set up and take down repeatedly during a workday.

The Sit–Stand Desk
Finally, in April of this year, Cabinetmaker Husband felt bad enough for me, hearing me talk about my dreams of an easier way to stand at work, that he sat down with me and drew up plans for a custom sit–stand desk, one that would allow me to alternate between sitting and standing. I knew, from all the reading of medical journals that I do, that this standing thing shouldn't be all or nothing. Yes, it's bad for your body if you sit all day, but it can be hard on your joints when you stand without reprieve or without moving around. So the plans that he created for my desk showed a stationary left side, with a pullout where I could do paperwork while seated, and a right side that I could raise and lower at the touch of a button. Here's a slide show (7.3 MB) about my desk's creation.

Money-Saving Alternatives
Before you ask whether my husband can make a custom sit–stand desk for you, you'll need to know that custom desks aren't at all cheap. All of the materials—lumber, hardware, and desk lift together—cost about $400. But that $400 is much less than what I could have paid. My husband saved us a lot of money by purchasing an electric scissor car jack to lift the standing portion of my desk; it's hidden under the desktop. The pneumatic lifts used in many commercially available desks cost between $800 and $2,000. Also, if I had had to pay my husband for his labor, just as his clients have to pay him, that would have been an additional $4,100 or so. And if I were a client of his who didn't live in the area, I also would have had to pay huge shipping costs, because this desk is heavy. Finally, once the desk was delivered, I'd have had to assemble it.

But don't despair if your budget is small or if you don't have a life partner who is a cabinetmaker. Lots of people improvise ingenious and inexpensive setups for standing at work. Here's a post from the blog Lifehacker, with photos, describing how one person improvised. And here are lots of photos of inventive, weird, and funny setups that people have improvised. Also, Mark Lukach at Wired has written a helpful review of several different commercially available standing desks, and he provides a good summary (with links) of current research about why sitting too much is unhealthy.

Good Practices for Standing
I'm not a physician or ergonomist, but these are the guidelines I try to follow while I stand at work:

  1. Stand on a good, cushy floor mat.
  2. Stand barefoot or in no-heel shoes (on that cushy mat).
  3. Alternate between sitting and standing, to build up core, back, hip, and leg strength.
  4. Stand with the knees slightly flexed, rather than locked straight.
  5. Shift weight from foot to foot periodically; don't stand as still as a statue.
  6. Make sure that the desk is truly at the right height for personal ergonomics.

I've lost a total of 91 pounds since I started making lifestyle changes 2 years ago. As you can see from the photos in this post, I still have more pounds to lose before I get to a healthy weight. But already, I have gone down 3 clothing sizes, my physician has decreased my daily dose of thyroid medication, my blood glucose levels are excellent (for someone with type 2 diabetes), I have more stamina, I sleep better at night, and I don't get drowsy or bored at work. I often dance to instrumental bluegrass, baroque, or Celtic music as I stand in front of my computer monitor and edit. And I feel great!

I'd enjoy seeing your sit–stand or standing setup, so please leave a comment with links to photos of your workspace.

I thank my colleague Adrienne Montgomerie for reviewing the first draft of this post and providing helpful suggestions. Everyone needs an editor—even an editor needs an editor! Be sure to check out her blog for lots of great how-to posts.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Here's an inspiring article about using standing desks in schools: http://occupational-therapy.advanceweb.com/Archives/Article-Archives/Stand-Up-for-Good-Health.aspx

Here's a roundup of the current research on standing at work: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/sunday-review/stand-up-for-fitness.html

Here's a great resource on staying healthy at work: http://www.officefitness.org

Here's a story about an inexpensive Ikea hack for a standing desk: http://www.ikeahackers.net/2012/05/standing-desk-with-utby-legs.html

Leigh Ann Otte said...

Very interesting. Makes me more aware of how much I sit. Hmmm ... maybe I'll have to figure out something myself. I imagine it's something I'd have to do a little at a time and work up to because sitting is just so pleasant. :-) Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Leigh Ann, standing at the desk is definitely something to work up to, especially if you're a hard-core sitter, as I was. I alternate between sitting and standing throughout the workday now.

Leigh Ann Otte said...

Well, Katharine, you inspired me enough to try it. I made a makeshift standing desk (put a box on top of a short cabinet) and stood for 15 minutes. It was great. Because I work on a laptop, I put the computer just below shoulder level so I could stand up straight and still see the screen. The way I had to hold my arms ended up working my arm muscles. I also found that I was moving the whole time. I don't like to stand still, so I was shifting back and forth and sometimes even lifting myself with my calf muscles. It was just enough time to do one editing pass on a short article. Definitely want to try it again. I think it must take discipline initially to keep it up, but I can see why you like it. Thanks for the inspiration.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Cool! :-D

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Yet more good blog posts and articles about standing at work, whether with commercially available desks or improvised setups:





ErinBrenner said...

I'm so excited for you, Katharine, and you've been such an inspiration. I use a modestly priced lectern as a standing desk, which I've placed right next to my traditional desk. I stand most of the day now and feel so much better!

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Hurray for feeling better, Erin!

Unknown said...

A Height Adjustable Desk or Table would be a great solution for those who need to fluctuate their sitting & standing time at their desk. With a ModTable base from MultiTable.com, you can adjust the height of the desk to your comfort level. They are even customizable, and you can choose your own base color as well as top size & color! There is a lot of health information on the website explaining the health benefits of standing while you work. We are always here to help with your ergonomic set up, and any questions you may have!

GirlReworked said...

This is fantastic!! As a writer and editor, I am also sitting way too much. I've come to think of sitting as the new smoking, and really need to quit soon. Ha! Thank you for sharing your awesome desk and the links to other alternatives.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

You're very welcome, GirlReworked.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

A colleague has pointed out this blog post detailing how to inexpensively build a standing desk.

Unknown said...

Welcome to the "standing" club! I "joined" several months ago when I took on a job with an adjustable height desk in the office. We use NextDesks at work and I have really grown to love this desk. I love that I can move it from sitting to standing with the touch of a button and not have to worry about moving all of my stuff to another desk anytime I'd like to sit down.
Because sometimes you DO need a break from standing-- it's actually better for your metabolism to alternate between the two positions (obviously the best solution is to be moving around-- walking, jogging, etc. but we can't exactly do that throughout the work day.)
Anyway, I just thought this might be something you'd like to check out since you're a member of the standing club now! http://www.nextdesks.com/
Thanks for a great post.


Anonymous said...

Hi Katharine, I'm glad I'm not the only one standing on my desk. I am also self-employed and my husband thinks its a little weird. Thanks to a friend, I took it one more level and did a treadmill desk setup. Something similar to this.. Lifespan Treadmill Desk.

If I was constantly sitting and now standing, why not squeeze in a good mindless workout too.

P.S. I showed my husband your posts on the stand up desk (including your latest one) and he apologized for calling me silly. THANKS!

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

I'm always happy to help a colleague avoid being thought of as silly, ilovetech1. ;-)

Unknown said...

I feel more energetic, and it helps me maintain better posture. I’ve been sitting only 0-5 working hours per week, and standing the remaining time.

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