Is a stand up desk better for your back?

    18 September 2019

    With a quite literal ‘rise’ in stand up desks in many offices around the UK and a sales forecast predicting a £2.8 billion market by 2025, there have been questions raised as to whether stand up desks are just another fad or something that desk-based workers and companies should be investing in.

    Comparisons between sitting and standing postures and their effect on our health have been made since as early as the 1960’s. A study from that time looked at the risk of heart disease between London bus drivers and their, more active, conductor colleagues. It found that the drivers were three times more likely to develop heart disease than the conductors. Since then research has delved deeper into other effects of standing versus sitting.   More recently, research has looked at the effect on behaviour, work performance, discomfort, and posture. Most evidence has found only minimal impacts on any of those areas, the highest impact being changes in work performance and discomfort, particularly of the lower back.

    As Darwin’s theory of human evolution helps to confirm, the human body is better suited to standing than sitting. We haven’t developed from ape to Homo Sapiens to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, will the iconic ‘ape to man’ picture have to be updated to represent more of a pyramid of evolution? The human body is a robust and, most of the time, magnificent biomechanical machine. Although it may seem that it can tolerate sitting for over 40 hours a week, it is not what it was designed for. The body needs movement and the discomfort that has been found to reduce from the use of a standing desk is purely from the ability to assume a different posture to sitting, and still be able to complete your job.

    When we sit, for any length of time, the muscles in the front of our hips and thighs shorten, our back flexes and our shoulders round. Most people are aware of the fundamentals of good chair based postures i.e. sitting up straight and drawing the shoulders back. However, despite our best intentions, it’s almost impossible to do this for an entire working day, everyday. We don’t have the stamina and endurance in the muscles to hold us in this position for extended periods of time, despite best intentions. A standing desk provides the ability to move from sitting to standing throughout the day, and apply good postural corrections in both positions before the point of the muscles fatiguing, which is realistically between 20-30 minutes.

    Evidence also suggests that people using sit-stand desks were more engaged at work and better at their jobs than their chair-bound peers, with less job-related fatigue, less daily anxiety and higher overall quality of life.  All these benefits should surely encourage companies to start adopting stand up desk policies.

     There are a few simple actions you can take to offload your back, with or without the luxury of a standing desk:

    1. Move regularly throughout the day.  The back likes to move and even if that’s a walk around the office then it’s better than nothing. 

    2. If a standing desk is not a possibility then get creative. Take your laptop to a high surface or prop it on top of a box or some books to give your back a change in posture. If your computer is not portable then try to take all your phone calls standing up.

    3. Set up an hourly timer to remind yourself to move or stand or try to associate a certain task, such as reviewing a particular spreadsheet or taking phone calls, with standing so that it becomes a frequent habit.

    4. Suggest walking meetings to colleagues, either to the nearest coffee shop or around a local park. 

    5. Seek advice from a physiotherapist to see if a standing desk is the right thing for you. If you have been desk based for a long time it might be something you need to ease into very gradually as standing can put pressure on the lower back to. A physiotherapist can help with a proper ergonomic desk set up and assess your posture too.

     Rosie Cardale Physiotherapist. She has a regular clinic at Bristol Physiotherapy Clinic or follow her on Instagram @pilateswithrosie