Standing Desks Ease Some Back Pain

But they may not be so great for those with foot issues.


Courtesy of Cretta Workspace


Berkeley graphic designer Jessica Greenwalt, 28, was worried about mounting pains in her wrist and shoulder from hunching over a tablet all day. When she heard about standing desks, she thought she might have found a solution. To start, she created a makeshift standing desk; in June, she switched to a convertible standing and sitting desk. She noticed that standing made her more alert at work, but also helped diminish her pain and stave off early warning signs of carpal tunnel syndrome.

“I was in a lot of pain, and I got depressed, because I thought I might have to give up doing what I love,” said Greenwalt, founder of graphic design firm Pixelkeet.

Standing desks—that is, desks designed to be used while standing rather than sitting—are gaining popularity for their supposed health and mental benefits. Like many people who have adopted the standing-desk lifestyle, Greenwalt heard about research showing the health dangers of prolonged sitting. Experts, however, are divided on just how beneficial a switch really is. 

Humans developed anatomically to live on their feet, not to spend most of their time sitting. But while many health-conscious workers long thought they could counteract the ill effects of sitting with regular exercise, new research suggests that might not be enough. 

Abbie Durkee, 38, a clothing designer from Novato, also found she could concentrate better at a standing desk. “Once I moved my office to a more private space, the standing desk with a stool has been terrific,” said Durkee. “Not only does it keep you moving around a bit so the body doesn’t settle into bad posture, but it activates the mind-body connections so my conversations are more energized.”

Laurent Colvin, a doctor of chiropractics with The Joint, a clinic in Berkeley, said that standing desks are good for anyone hoping to alleviate or avoid back pain. 

“Standing desks are not the answer everyone claims them to be,” said Steve Meagher, an Orinda physical therapist and ergonomist who has clientswho using standing desks. “Standing does decrease stress on the lower back but increases stress on the hips, knees, feet, and heart. Just ask a checker at Safeway how their feet feel at the end of their shift.”

Meagher pointed out that standing desks can help alleviate a bad back or herniated disc, but they aren’t necessarily right for everyone—in the end, many standing-desk users are just exchanging one static pose for another. In fact, people who get the most out of standing desks are the ones who change position frequently.

Standing still for long periods can lead to foot disorders like plantar fasciitis, because the gravity pressures at the heels and balls of the feet can strain the plantar fascia connective tissue, but Berkeley podiatrist Jay Glasser said that the effects will vary from person to person.

A well-designed standing desk should encourage the user to keep moving.

“You should always have a footrest,” said Colvin. “If you go to a bar, you’ll  always see that there’s a bar near the floor to rest your foot. That way you can alternate your feet, resting one then the other against the bar, as you’re standing and drinking.” 

Both Durkee and Greenwalt combine their standing time with other physical activity, like yoga or massage, and alternate between sitting and standing to keep moving.

“I’ve found it most helpful to have variety,” agreed Greenwalt. “Standing too long gets tiring, and sitting too long makes me feel sloppy and reduces my energy level. On days that I mostly stand at my desk, I feel more energized and awake, but I can’t work as long. I get nice bursts of efficient work time.”

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