Are standing desks a good idea?
Sitting or standing?
Standing desks are becoming more and more popular. They are being sold everywhere; from Argos, to Ikea, to Amazon. The majority of people that use them say it’s like a magic wand. Especially if you have or had back problems.
Are they really that good? How do they work and why people feel better after working while standing rather than sitting?
What is it?
A standing desk is like any other desk. They come in different sizes, shapes and colours, but what differentiate them from a normal desk is the ability to raise at different heights, allowing you to work on your computer in a standing position.
Dangers of sitting
First, we must review the anatomy of the spine.
The human spine is composed by 33 vertebrae. 7 in the neck, 12 in the thorax, 5 in the lumbar region and then 5 in the sacrum and 4 in the coccyx. The last two areas (sacrum and coccyx) do not come equipped with intervertebral discs: this means that those segments are fused together. We have 23 intervertebral discs that separate the vertebrae in the neck, upper back and lower back. For more detailed information about the IVD’s (intervertebral disks), I suggest you to read THIS POST. For now let’s just say that the IVD’s main functions are to maintain the spine flexible (allowing movements in each direction), absorb shocks (like a jump or a fall) and – most importantly – to provide an exit point (the intervertebral foramen) for the spinal nerves to come out without compression. Our discs gain volume while we sleep (the horizontal position we assume while we sleep helps them to naturally re-expand) and also they naturally dehydrate with aging (they become thinner).
Sitting is a health killer. If we are talking specifically about spinal health, there is no daily habit which is worse than sitting. I personally have performed xrays on hundreds and hundreds of people, and usually the most damaged spines are those of people who sit down for long times: accountants, lawyers, lorry drivers, taxi drivers etc. It might sound counterintuitive, but statistically those spines are worse than those of scaffolders, builders, or manual labourers in general. Why is it so bad? Because when you sit, your body weight does not have anywhere else to go, rather than your discs. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but sitting places way more stress on your discs than standing. The research on this subject is vast and solid results have been achieved (take a look HERE). On top of this, most people tend to slouch forward when they sit, reinforcing bad upper back posture.
And if you have a pre-existing predisposition to develop a herniated disc (or if you have a disc bulge), sitting will only make it worse.
Our bodies – genetically and structurally – do not differ from the bodies of human beings living on this planet – let’s say 3000 years ago. Our world and our lifestyle though, differs a lot from that. As human beings, we are not meant to eat as much and as often as we are, to move as little as we are, and also, to sit as much as we are. What our body is designed to do, is to move. The average adult now sits 6.5 hours/day. In the U.K., many adults spend 9 hours per day sitting; this include sitting at the desk, watching TV, reading, doing homework, traveling by car. For teenagers, time spent sitting it’s even more.
A couple of important links:
From personal experience, I believe to avoid the pain and damage that comes from prolonged sitting, a standing desk is the best solution. It is practical, some of them are also good looking. Working while standing will become a habit in no time. You can start by taking regular intervals of sitting and standing – let’s say you sit 20 mins and stand 20 mins. After a while, you can start increasing your standing time, to the point that you will sit only when you want to rest.
While you are standing, maintain an active posture, moving a little, avoiding locking the knees staying completely still – this will cause all sorts of other problems.
If there is no possibility of getting a standing desk, there are some converters which you can apply to the existing desk in order to raise the height. They work well (they are less good looking, I know).
For people that are forced to sit because they drive, there is not a lot to do. The only thing is to buy a lumbar support to maintain the lordosis (the extension curvature in your lower back) and to generally try to position the knees lower than the hips. This will allow your spine to maintain its original shape and not to reverse – like oftentimes does because of too much sitting. In addition, you could take more frequent breaks, to allow the buildup of pressure to be released.
Sitting is really a killer for all sorts of reasons, metabolic, postural and more. What might feel good now, might feel very bad in the future if you don’t change your habits…
Edoardo Elisei DC
Alive Chiropractic LTD
1C Crown Gate Square