I’ve been using a standing desk for a few months now and I love it. It makes me feel more productive, keeps me active, and cost me next to nothing to set up. Still, I had some growing pains. If you’re thinking about setting up a standing desk, here’s what I learned so you don’t have to.
My setup is pretty basic, but it gets the job done. I have a plain desk/table that my roommate was going to get rid of, and on top of that I have an Oristand where my Apple Magic Keyboard, Logitech M510 wireless mouse, and Dell XPS 13 rest comfortably. The Oristand, which costs $25 plus shipping, is made out of thick cardboard and can easily fold up for travel. Beyond that, I have a small desk organizer, some writer’s juice, and a couple cigars that like to tease me all day.
Always Wear Shoes, and Invest in Foot and Knee-Saving Gear
After only a few days of standing, I noticed my feet really fucking hurt. I was working from the comfort and privacy of my home, and standing on cushy carpet, so I was barefoot. Why not? This is a huge mistake: No matter how soft your carpet is, you should always wear shoes, and preferably shoes that have some arch support in them.
I have a couple of footwear options for my standing desk. The first is a nice pair of running shoes, my New Balance Fresh Foam Vongos. They provide a ton of cushion for my feet and stability for my knees when I run in the city, and they’re great for long bouts of standing as well. If you have a decent pair of running shoes, go with those. Otherwise, make sure your shoes have decent cushion, support, and maybe a special insole. My other option is a pair of fuzzy house slippers my grandma never used. They’ve got nice foam insoles and I feel funky fresh wearing them—which is sometimes more important than being comfortable.
It’s also a good idea to increase the padding of your standing area. Even with shoes on, the softer you can make your standing zone the better. I use an extra-thick Spoga Exercise Yoga Mat with Comfort Foam ($25). It provides some padding and it’s nice for doing my workouts. Two birds? Meet this super-soft stone. Mark Sisson at Mark’s Daily Apple also recommends elevating one foot periodically while you stand. It can help keep your back from getting stiff and give your legs a little break. I use a small cardboard box for this (not pictured), but there are plenty of step stool options online if you want something that looks nicer.
Stretch and Move Regularly
Working at a standing desk fatigues you a lot faster than when you’re sitting, but it also does a number on your joints and muscles. While it’s good to take breaks from standing (more on that later) there are a few extra things you can do to keep your back, shoulders, arms, and legs from getting stiff and sore. The video above from the Focal Upright YouTube channel demonstrates some “standing desk yoga,” or simple stretches and exercises that will keep your back loose and help you avoid any chronic pain in your legs.
In this second video from the same channel, you’ll see some great stretches that specifically target your arms and shoulders. I do a selection of these regularly and they help a lot. I also try to incorporate exercise into my long days of standing. I’m a practitioner of “grease the groove” training, a concept developed by former Soviet Special Forces instructor Pavel Tsatsouline, where you get stronger by regularly doing strength exercises with lighter reps and weight, but do them more often than you would a regular workout. So I take a break to lift and exercise every hour or two. I also take a few minutes to practice my basketball skills or play guitar when I have a few minutes.
You may not be able to do all of those things, especially if you’re in an office, but taking a break to move around is the important part. Go for a walk around your office building, do some stretches, get a few push-ups or squats in, and whatever else it takes to keep your blood flowing.
Don’t Forget Basic Ergonomics
You may be standing while you work, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about your posture. In fact, it’s more important you practice good posture because you’re standing. Unless you’re a soldier or bionic man, you only know how to stand properly and comfortably for short time spans, and even then, you probably slouch like I do. In the video above, from the GuerillaZen Fitness YouTube channel, certified personal trainer Blake Bowman explains the basics of standing right.
Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart, but pay attention to how your positioning feels in your hips and go with whatever is the most comfortable. Once your feet are planted, do what Bowman calls “screwing your feet into the ground,” which involves slightly rotating your feet outward to give you better arch support for your feet. Now flex your abs as if you’re anticipating a punch, engage your glutes, give a little arch to your lower back, stick your sternum out slightly, and roll your shoulders back.
You should also have your keyboard comfortably in reach so your elbows make a 90 degree angle, and your computer screen should be up high enough that you can read it without tilting your neck at all—just like when you’re sitting. I had to stack a few boxes underneath my laptop to achieve this, but it’s worth it, even if it doesn’t look as nice.
Take Plenty of Sitting Breaks
Taking regular breaks to sit is essential to working at a standing desk. I tried to go full days standing at first, and it was a huge mistake. My feet, legs, and back would hurt up through the following morning, and I would lose interest in standing again. Part of that was building up my lazy muscles, but it was too much too fast, and I realized that if I didn’t break to sit down, I was going to burn out quick. You should go back and forth regularly so you’re not doing any damage to yourself either way. But for how long? A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that around half your work day, or four hours, is the magic number. Use a timer on your phone, or even a web app like Standing Clock, keep switching back and forth.
In fact, while I’ve become a huge fan of working on my feet, I don’t recommend having only a standing desk. No matter where you stand (yep) on the health debate surrounding standing desks, standing for too long is just as bad as sitting for too long. And if you can’t easily convert your workspace back and forth, do what I do and have two desks, or use a kitchen table as your standing desk space (or your couch as your sitting desk space). It might seem redundant, but it keeps me fresh and productive.