Become a Stand-Up Guy: The History, Benefits, and Use of Standing Desks

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 5, 2011 · 118 comments

in Health & Sports, Wellness

In the past couple of years, as studies have come out sounding the alarm on the ill-effects of excessive sitting, the popularity of standing or stand-up desks has soared. Those who have read much of the coverage of this trend might be forgiven for thinking that standing to work constitutes a new hip fad.

But as it is with many things, everything old is new again. For the stand-up desk was cool long before the cats in Silicon Valley got hip to them. They’ve actually been a secret of great men for centuries. Today we’ll explore the standing desk’s place in history, discuss the benefits of using one, and outline how you can rediscover this old/new tradition.

The Standing Desk in History

Offices in the 19th century often had communal sitting/standing desks as opposed to individual desks for each employee.

Searching the historical record, and by historical record I mean Google Books, you’ll find mentions of the standing desk in a variety of places.

Old inventories of furniture from state legislatures and other government bodies during the 19th century often include an entry for stand-up desks. And in industrial journals you’ll find references like this one:

“Mr. W. H. Thompson, President of the gas company, with his hat off, stood near the centre of the room, behind a standing desk used by the weigher of the establishment. To his right Emerson McMillin, with his silk hat on, chewed at a cigar.”

Scientific American, 1886

School classrooms were sometimes outfitted with standing desks. In an 1899 book, School Hygiene, Dr. Ludwig Wilhelm Johannes Kotelmann described the rationale behind their use:

“It has in late years been repeatedly suggested that even with the proper kind of desk much sitting is liable to injure the abdominal organs and the circulation. Desks have accordingly been proposed which can be arranged for standing as well as sitting. These are hardly necessary for the lower and intermediate classes, since the pupils here rise when questioned, and tumble about vigorously on the play ground during recesses. They are rather to be thought of for the upper classes.”

The book showcases some of the designs for student desks that converted from sitting to standing:

In another instance of the everything old is new again phenomena, schools are once more experimenting with giving students adjustable height desks, which allow them to stand and work. Educators feel such desks help students focus more, since kids (and adults!) aren’t made to sit still all day.

The stand-up desk has also been the favorite workstation of many a great man from history.

Jefferson’s Tall Desk

Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most famous user of the stand-up desk. His six-legged “tall desk” had an adjustable slanted top that was large enough to place a folio. Jefferson used the desk to draw up brilliant architectural blueprints for buildings like the Virginia State Capitol.

Jefferson was not the only head of state to favor the standing desk. Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck would be standing at his desk by five in the morning, ready to sort through all the proposals and business of the day. When Winston Churchill was not lounging in bed, he liked to lay out the galley proofs of his next book on an upright desk and pore over them, looking for needed corrections.

Many authors felt like standing up to work got their creative juices flowing. Charles Dickens used one, as revealed by the description of his study by a visitor: “books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable easy chairs.”

Hemingway working on the porch of friend Bill Davis’ house in Malaga, Spain. Davis provided the desk for Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway discovered the standing desk method from his editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Maxwell Perkins. In Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, AE Hotchner describes Hemingway’s set-up in his home in Havana:

“In Ernest’s room there was a large desk covered with stacks of letters, magazines, and newspaper clippings, a small sack of carnivores’ teeth, two unwound clocks, shoehorns, an unfilled pen in an onyx holder, a wood carved zebra, wart hog, rhino and lion in single file, and a wide-assortment of souvenirs, mementos and good luck charms. He never worked at the desk. Instead, he used a stand up work place he had fashioned out of a bookcase near his bed. His portable typewriter was snugged in there and papers were spread along the top of the bookcase on either side of it. He used a reading board for longhand writing.”

5 Reasons to Use a Stand-Up Desk

So should you follow in Jefferson’s and Hemingway’s footsteps and start working on your feet? Here are five reasons to consider making the switch:

1. To Avoid an Early Grave

Excessive sitting is slowly killing you. I know. It seems like hyperbole. But it’s not. A study found that men who sit for more than six hours of their leisure time each day had a 20% higher death rate than those who sat for three hours or less. The epidemiologist who conducted the study, Alpha Patel, concluded that excessive sitting literally shortens a person’s life by several years. Another study showed that men who sat for 23 or more hours a week had a 64% greater chance of dying from heart disease than those who sat for 11 hours per week or less.

So why is sitting so frighteningly bad for you?

Well sitting is the ultimate passive activity; you burn more calories chewing gum than you do slouching in your chair.

When you sit, the electrical activity in your muscles flat lines, and your body uses very little energy. Powering down your body like that for long periods of time leads to a cascade of negative effects. Your heart rate, calorie burn, insulin effectiveness, and levels of good cholesterol all drop. Your body also stops producing lipoprotein lipase and other molecules that are only released when you flex your muscles, such as when you are standing and walking. These molecules play an important role in processing fats and sugars; without them, your metabolism suffers. Add these factors up, and it’s no wonder that those who sit for long periods of time each day have larger waistlines and worse blood sugar and blood pressure profiles and are at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer than who sit less.

And if you think you’re off the hook because you get in a bout of vigorous exercise each day…you’re not. Studies have shown that exercise does not counteract the negative effects of sitting. It’s like thinking you can snack on Twinkies all day, and then offset that by running for an hour.

2. To Lose Weight

As mentioned above, when you sit, your heart rate and calorie burn go down. Health experts will tell you that weight gain typically creeps on gradually from consuming a few too many calories here and there, and slowing down in small ways as we age. We just keeping putting on a couple of pounds each year until a decade goes by and suddenly we’re tubby. I did a test with my heart rate monitor and found that my heart rate was 10 beats higher when I was standing than sitting, and I burned 54 calories in an hour of sitting as opposed to 72 in an hour of standing. That doesn’t seem like much, but if you sub in four hours of standing for four hours of sitting a day, that could translate to 7 lbs a year!

3. To Save Your Back

When I go to the gym I see all these middle-aged guys lying on the floor and contorting their bodies into weird stretches in an attempt to alleviate their chronic back pain. These aren’t blue-collar men who’ve strained their back from years of heavy labor; no, they are white collar guys whose pain stems from not using their backs enough. Years of slouching in a chair has taken a toll. Standing up engages your back muscles and improves your posture. Many folks who have made the switch to a stand-up desk have reported that the change cured their back pain.

4. To Increase Your Focus

Standing up can increase your focus in several ways. First, you don’t get that sleepy feeling where you desperately want to put your head down on the desk and pass out; your muscles are engaged and you’re less comfortable, so you stay alert. And second, it lets you be more active so you can release your restless energy. You can move around more, shift from one leg to another, and start pacing around whenever you’d like.

And perhaps there’s something to be said for the argument one hears from creative-types that standing increases your blood flow, thus keeping your brain juiced for inspiration.

5. To Gain a Satisfying Tiredness

While you get less sleepy while working standing up, at the same time you gain a satisfying overall tiredness by the end of the day. I hate going to bed feeling like my body hasn’t done a damn thing all day. When you stand up while you work, you earn that satisfying body-used feeling, and at night you fall asleep fast into a restful snooze.

Making the Switch to the Stand-Up Desk

So you’re sold on the whole standing desk thing. How do you get started?

New Heights Electric Sit to Stand Desk

Well of course you can just buy a standing desk outright. BeyondtheOfficeDoor.com carries great, Made in America desks that are built with electric motors that easily adjust the desks up and down, so you can alternate sitting and standing. Or you can shop for more classic styles on sites like standupdesks.com

Luckily, you need not have $800 to drop on a new desk if you want to start standing up while you work. The options for jerry-rigging a stand-up desk are limited only by your imagination, and the tolerance levels of others for your potential eyesore of a creation.

I use a kitchen counter that’s about the right height for working. And I also frequent a coffee shop that has a high table that can be used with stools or for standing up. In my old place, I stacked together a bunch of large books and placed my computer on top.

You can also raise your whole desk by placing it on top of cinder blocks or milk crates. Or you can set a coffee table on top of your current desk.

The options for jerry rigging a stand-up desk are limitless, albeit ugly.

And you don’t even have to start with a desk at all. You can stack together some plastic storage tubs or boxes, or use a book shelf or even an ironing board. Folks have also had luck with modifying IKEA furniture to their purposes.

Of course the third option is to build the desk yourself. I’m going to be doing just that, documenting it, and sharing how I did it with you guys once I’m done.

Finally, here are a few things to keep in mind no matter what form your standing desk takes:

  • If you work in an office, some or all of these options may not be viable. You can talk to your boss about getting a different desk. And you can always stand up to surf the web and such when you get home. I personally like to pace around while reading my Kindle.
  • Excessive sitting isn’t healthy, but standing all day long in the same place isn’t the best thing for you either. Ideally, you want to move around and change positions throughout the day, standing sometimes, then sitting, then pacing, and so on. So keep that in mind when buying or making a desk; get an adjustable one so you can both stand and sit, or have a place to sit near your upright desk (or use a stool). You might consider getting just a podium to place next to your regular desk.
  • For the best ergonomic positioning, create a stand-up set-up that puts your arms at about 90 degrees while you type. If you’re keen on getting the ergonomics just right, check out this write up from David Martinez on how to find the perfect height for your desk.
  • Standing up while you work will take some getting used to. At first it will seem tiring, but as you continue to do it, your body adapts, and you’ll be able to stand for longer and longer periods of time. You might also consider getting a soft pad to stand on to give your dew beaters some extra cushioning.

So get to work like Jefferson, and soon people will be saying that you’re a real stand-up guy!

{ 118 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Douglas Dalton January 12, 2013 at 9:54 am

Thank you for the offer. I stand more and more to alleviate a little back pain.
Writing poetry would be easier due to the elevated desk.
Have a wonderful New Year.
Douglas C, Dalton.

102 Alan January 12, 2013 at 11:11 am

I have been thinking of trying this. Thanks for all the comments

103 Barry January 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I’m 6’8″ tall and most desks simply don’t fit (along with airline seats, hotel showers and rental cars) I have rigged a desk from a “gathering table” designed for casual kitchens and dining rooms – but it’s not quite the same. A stand up desk enables me to write as I am a stand up guy.

104 Bill Camp January 12, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Retired, but find that time at the desk has increased. Knee problems often require leaving the desk for stretching. This adjustable desk sounds like the way to increase comfort and get more done.

105 Greg Christy January 12, 2013 at 5:30 pm

While at work I’ve always thought that standing was better than sitting. One of my favorite pictures is that of Winston Churchill standing at his writing desk.

106 Jedidiah J. Esposito January 13, 2013 at 9:51 pm

The type of work I do has me back and forth between a workstation and a few tables with all manner of projects laid out. I’m thankful to be moving around a little bit but the ability to stand and keep working would really help to keep those creative juices flowing!

107 Bryce January 21, 2013 at 11:54 am

Did you make a standing desk in the end?

108 Brad Bunnin June 4, 2013 at 12:16 pm

I read, I heeded, I bought an Ergo-Stand to put atop my existing desk—and I could not be more pleased. I added an adjustable pull-out keyboard/mouse tray, and the whole rig is stable, adjustable, and relatively inexpensive compared with an adjustable stand-up desk. I can feel the effects from glutes to calves.

109 Gray Champion June 25, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Am on my second week of my jerry-rigged standing desk at work. My desk is on qty (8) eight cinder blocks that I bought at the home store for $1.67 each.

A very large number of interested co-workers have inquired about it and I have emailed the link for this webpage to them.

Am thinking that breathing is fuller and easier now, with a general tendency to hold my abdomen erect instead of slouching. My feet tire from time to time, but I keep furniture nearby to put one foot or the other up on as a stool.

The first week I felt more tired and borrowed a high seat as you would see with drafting tables. I think this helped me get used to it. It is getting less tiresome and more natural all the time.

I have wanted to try this for a while and I am finally doing it!

110 Mark August 8, 2013 at 3:55 pm

To share some ideas..

1. My office desk
- A typical L-shaped layout (no cabinets). One side facing a wall, the other the door.
- 3 plastic drawers – the Sterilite variety. These are medium sized ones, so they’re about 7? inches high.
- 1 MDF board – 4ft (Home Depot)
- Space drawers evenly on the existing desk (facing the wall). Place an anti-slip mat on the desk.
- MDF board goes above the 3 drawers.
- Another anti-slip mat to cover the MDF board.
- DONE.
Hope this helps!

111 gaiius gracchus August 24, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Standing all day can also be problematic. That is why we went with a treadmill desk. Makes all the difference in the world! We do alternate with some time sitting – it is maybe 50/50. But it feels really good to walk slowly while we work instead of just stand or sit. We forget we are walking we get so engrossed into our work on our computers.

We got a new Multitable and we LOVE IT!!! We ordered the entire table from them, not just the base — they customized it for us, too. We checked out almost every standup desk on the market before settling on this one. They have a plethora of types of desks – something for everyone.

Although they had models that fit over their own treadmills, we already had a high-end Precor treadmill at home. Note that most of the treadmills that come from the standup desk combos have no console in front to get in the way, but ours, just like a gym model, does. So we needed the table that goes up really high, plus we needed a more narrow table since we are further back on the treadmill due to the console. Plus, we just have small laptops so no need for a wider desk.

They took their table from the treadmill combo and created a customized top for us. Also they were able to adjust the width.

It fits perfectly! The inner width is 34″ between the legs, the tabletop is 36″ wide and 18″ deep. The height goes up to 54 inches!!!! Yayyyh! Finally we found one that fit our needs over our treadmill! (good luck finding one that tall, and, if you do, good luck getting the rest of these dimensions.)

It was pretty easy to assemble, and putting things together is not my forte. We ordered the “left-handed” model, which is just having the crank on the left side, since our treadmill is up to the wall on the right side. We really appreciate a manual operation, although they certainly have electric models. I don’t want another thing to have to plug in, and it takes so little effort to crank it, why bother with electric.

Their customer service is outstanding. Their prices are far, far better than any other desk of this quality, and especially compared to companies who are willing to customize for you

112 SteveBercy August 24, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Very informative post, thanks !
Here is a simple and very cheap solution to build your own standing desk onto your traditional desk : http://iamnotaprogrammer.com/Ikea-Standing-desk-for-22-dollars.html

113 Keith November 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

I’ve seen this article before, but I’m actually planning to act on it now! I’ve talked to my employer’s facilities department about the possibility of getting a standing desk (otherwise I’m going with the Ikea hack), and I’m thinking about doing something for home as well (especially next year, when I start grad school and will be back to studying a lot at home). This really seems like a good life change to start now!

114 Nathan January 5, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Tip: when working at a standing desk, at different points try to stand with your heels lifted slightly off of the ground. I’ve found this to be much more comfortable. I’ve also found it helpful to stand with my legs spread apart wider than shoulder-width. For the martial artists out there, “standing” in stances can be a good way to strengthen your legs and provides for entertainment for passers-by…haha.

115 tyler February 14, 2014 at 8:56 am

it looks like some of these desks could create bad neck posture. creating that horrible looking dowagers hump. Is there any idea to get the benefits of a standing desk yet eliminate the potential for this bad posture (dowagers hump)

116 tyler February 14, 2014 at 9:03 am

how would you make sure you keep good posture during this time of using the standing desk to prevent dowagers hump?

117 Michael S. Doran March 5, 2014 at 8:50 am

I spend so much time sitting at a desk and staring at a screen that it canj’t be good. I am going to make it my mission to find a desk that can be raised and lowered at will. Thanks for the great article!

118 Adam Finan March 20, 2014 at 4:55 am

I have embraced the stand up desk for 2014.. Sitting is the new smoking!

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