Blog » Learning to Stand

I recently used a sheet of plywood and half an hour in a wood shop to drastically change my work environment. I built myself a standing desk. As it turns out, this simple change of posture has had surprising and far-reaching effects.

My motivation was physiological: I've been working from home since moving to Winnipeg, and miss the daily bicycle commute that wove pleasant exertion into the fabric of my everyday life. This dissatisfaction was galvanized by a New York Times article reporting on studies that demonstrate the health risks of too much sitting. Standing seemed like an easy way to avoid becoming any more of a desk-chair potato.

The standing desk is a simple three-sided plywood structure that raises my workstation to just below elbow level. A thick, closed-cell mat on the floor helps make standing for hours more comfortable. And comfort is a concern when making the change from sitting. I made the transition by wearing running shoes at first, and by working up from short stints to longer ones over the course of several days. Sore feet were an immediate issue that went away quickly. I found that my knees took the longest time to adapt, and were mildly achy for a couple of weeks. That these aches and pains appeared and then vanished was good evidence for the value of standing -- my body was doing more work and adapted to it happily.

On the basis of my experience with kneeling chairs, I expected to take as long as a few weeks to get used to working standing up. It became comfortable much faster than that, in part because it has also inspired some welcome changes in my work habits. I am much less likely to spend all day staring at the screen than I was when sitting. Instead I interleave computer time with reading, making phone calls, or preparing and organizing equipment. Standing has reduced the time I spend "information grazing" -- skimming news headlines and blog posts without taking in the details. There's something about standing to work that demands active accomplishment, a demand that has been a pretty effective inoculation against the time-wasting power of the Internet.

Indeed the whole mind-body experience of standing is very different from sitting, and something I hadn't at all anticipated. Approaching my newly-elevated computer for the first time was a bit of a shock because it was just so instantly at hand. When you sit to work, a of lot transitional activity is required: you move the chair around, get oriented to the keyboard and screen, and then start typing and clicking. You require the commitment and effort of postural, whole-body movements to transform your physical relationship with the machine. With a standing desk, however, your relationship to the computer is immediate: you walk up to begin using it, and finish by  walking away. This physical immediacy means that there is less inertia keeping me in front of or away from the computer.

So the surprise consequence of my learning to stand is that my computer has been recontextualized as tool and not so much of an all-consuming lifestyle. Like a knife or a hammer, I pick it up to accomplish a task and put it down when I'm done. And that, as much as the physical benefits of working more actively, has made me me feel a lot healthier and happier.