The sedentary nature of office work can be hazardous to one’s health and productivity. An emerging strategy to maintain health and comfort at work is to alternate frequently between sitting and standing postures. Injuries to the muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves that develop from ergonomic risk factors such as repetitive, forceful or awkward movements – musculoskeletal disorders – are almost always preventable.
The good news is a recent tool designed to improve health benefits, worker productivity and alleviate these injuries by promoting increased movement. That tool is a height-adjustable table that provides the individual user with the option to sit or stand as they desire throughout the work day.
Sit-to-stand desks adjust height quickly and easily to allow a user to do the same task whether seated or standing. These sit/stand desks are all the rage now, thanks to their health benefits and improved worker productivity. Those who change positions throughout the workday are at lower risk of developing lower-back pain, cardiovascular disease and even cancer than their sedentary peers.
Today’s corporate workplace is at a crossroads trying to decide how the workplace can contribute to increased personal physical health, how corporate culture can support physical activity strategies, and how to parallel worker productivity and efficiency with these efforts. As the media and medical community readily points out that sitting for extended periods of time can lead to reduced blood flow circulation, aches and pains, and have a very real and very negative impact on many metabolic factors. The American Heart Association states that getting as little as 30 minutes of physical activity a day can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
What to Look for in a Sit/Stand Desk
Sit/stand desks are designed to fit most people, tasks or spaces.
It’s important to consider and evaluate the four S’s – Speed, Sound, Stability and Style − as well as their ability to support technology when evaluating a sit/stand desk.
Speed – How fast does the worksurface move up and down? Speed is dependent on the type of mechanism found in the sit/stand unit – hand crank, electric or counterbalance.
Sound − The sound of a table transitioning between heights plays a big role in whether or not a table gets used and adjusted. Users not wanting to draw attention to themselves or disturb coworkers will be reluctant to employ a table with a noisy mechanism. Note also that faster electric mechanisms typically have a higher pitch.
Stability – Does the sit/stand unit pass the shake or push test? Keyboarding or writing on an unstable sit/stand unit with a bouncing task light will negatively impact worker productivity. However, users developing a positive critical first impression when they discover that the unit is stable and are more likely to adopt and use it.
Style – As mentioned earlier, people are drawn to objects that look good. Good design style and aesthetics are important.
How fast does the work surface move up and down? Speed depends on the type of mechanism found in the sit/stand unit. Counterbalance mechanisms are faster and typically quieter than electric units with their motors. They are more environmentally friendly in that they do not require power to operate, but lift less weight than their powered counterpart.
The technology and tools the sit/stand worksurface will have to support influences the most suitable mechanism. Not only do electric sit/stand units require minimal physical effort, but they are capable of supporting and lifting more weight. They are therefore accessible to most and ideal for technology-intensive users. In fact, the electric model is the only practical option for employees with 200 pounds (90.7kg) of technology on their desk..
Importance of Good Design
Many do not initially believe that design is important. If you have a well-designed task light at your desk, you will likely use it whereas an awkward-looking task light won’t be used as anything other than a paper weight. People are drawn to and interact with well-designed, aesthetically pleasing products.
So it’s important that height-adjustable tables are not only well-designed and look good, but that they integrate with your work environment. You can have form and function! Aesthetics and integration create a positive image.
Stand More than You Sit
How often should sit/stand users adjust their desk height? The conventional wisdom is: sit to stand in a three-to-one ratio. Sit for three hours and stand for one hour, for instance.
Teknion, − an international designer, manufacturer and marketer of a diverse portfolio of furnishings – recently sponsored the groundbreaking first laboratory-controlled study on the implementation of sit-stand workstations. The study was conducted by Canada’s most eminent kinesiologist, Jack P. Callaghan, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Spine Biomechanics and Injury Prevention, Department of Kinesiology, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, University of Waterloo.
The accepted ratio of sitting to standing at a sit/stand desk is three-to-one. The big revelation of Teknion’s study is to reverse the conventional sit-stand wisdom of a three-to-one sit-to-stand ratio. Instead, Dr. Callaghan’s team found, you should stand for three and sit for one. So, if you sit for five minutes, try standing for 15 minutes. For an eight-hour workday this would break down to two hours of sitting and six hours of standing.
Dr. Callaghan advises that you change position often and not wait until you feel pain or discomfort before changing positions. (It’s like drinking water: If you wait until you’re thirsty, you’re already on your way to becoming dehydrated.)
The Treadmill Craze
Treadmill desks have been widely promoted as an aid to workplace health and productivity. What’s wrong with this picture?
“There are multiple layers here,” says Jack Callaghan, Canada Research Chair in Spine Biomechanics and Injury Prevention, Department of Kinesiology, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo and the leading expert on spine mechanics in Canada. “One is the safety factor; there have been incidents of people falling off treadmill desks. And the rate of walking is so slow—one to one-and-a-half miles per hour—that it’s plodding, not walking. Because if you were truly walking, you wouldn’t be able to work. The metabolic rate of those walking stations is so at the low end that the differential from it and standing is minor, quite honestly.”
Then there’s the issue of real estate: the conveyor-belt mechanism needs to occupy a generous expanse to function effectively as a treadmill.
Seating vs. Standing Posture
Even the best task chair won’t compensate for sitting all day. The office worker sitting in a task chair is doing the backbreaking work. The reason: lumbar flexion.
“Our spine is strongest when it’s neutrally aligned, which is a standing posture, with just a little bit of flexion,” Callaghan says. “As soon as you’re going into flexion, when you bend over and touch your toes, or sit in a chair, you’re putting stress on the outside curve of joints in the lumbar spine. This can result in an injury, a herniated disc for example, where core material comes out the rear of the spinal disc and pushes directly on your spinal cord. And it hurts.”
If sitting is so bad for us then why do it? The quick fix seems to be to remove sitting as an option and to stand in the workplace. However, standing all day as a strategy has its limitations and like all things where our body is concerned frequency, intensity, and duration are critical.
The optimal setup of your computer, keyboard and other peripheral devices may change when you’re standing. Having an adjustable monitor arm will allow quick and easy changes in worksurface-to-monitor height that may be needed when moving between the two postures. Even if you can’t reduce your total sitting time, you will gain health benefits from changing regularly from sitting to standing.