zen of coding

It’s time to get up… A short story of a stand up desk programmer

I have to make a confession.

I’ve been using a stand up desk user for over a year now.
Meaning I choose to stand at my desk instead of sitting down…

Have I gone mad? Or do I just want to jump on another trend?

Let me see if I can address these and many more questions in a greater detail.

“Are you nuts?”

I guess that’s the most most common question I’ve been asked, when suggesting that I purposely chose to stand at work rather than chill in a super-comfy chair for $700, but there’s a method to my madness.

A couple of years ago, I read the following article from the Harvard Medical School… the title was curious enough: “Too much sitting linked to an early death“.

(Mind you, that as a programmer I would often sit more than 8 hrs a day).

Well, one article can certainly prompt a little interest in the topic, but man… have you read the news lately?

To be honest, after reading all that, I wasn’t sure that opting in for “not sitting” was somehow a viable, reasonable or a sane option. So what changed my perspective?.

This blog post was the guidance which, through some interesting questions, ultimately directed me into setting up a stand-up desk for work.

First, why do we sit at work? Where did this rule come from? (The answer seems to be pretty simple: we need comfort. Sitting down is comfortable).

On the other hand, why do chefs, architects, industrial designers, sculptors, artists and many others often chose to stand up during work? Of course, they take a seat when needed, but in many cases the requirement to sit down is not attached to any practical reason.
Not so with computer programmers, nor many other IT professionals.

sleeping-security-guard

One can take a hint from an old “Seinfeld” episode… but with that in mind, I think one of the most misunderstood concepts about a stand-up desk is an assumption that while standing a programmer would somehow become this guy:

Me and guard

That’s not really true. The jobs are different. The tasks at hand are very different… the only thing that’s similar is that both the programmer and the guard aren’t sitting down.

OK, so what’s the big deal? Why bother standing if I could sit comfortably instead?

Before I dive into an answer, just make a mental note of the following:

  • I can have a seat if I must at any point in time. There’s a chair within a few feet. (I am allowed to use it).
  • It is pretty comfortable to type standing up, once you’ve arranged your setup.
  • There is no pain in the legs or back. I thought there would be.
  • I don’t feel anymore tired after a day’s work, than I did after sitting down (if anything I have more energy).
  • I often move around, stretch, change positions. (Again I do not stand still like a pole. That’s not required).

Given some research and knowing what I know now, “standing up” at work doesn’t sound too bad… but looking back, something was still keeping me from making the “drastic” move for a while.

I guess it was important to break the cycle of that, which I was used to. Additionally the tingling pain and sensation I was getting in my right arm/hand after fifteen years of typing while sitting down, definitely wasn’t pleasant.

Eventually the potential benefits became clear…

  • Improved health
  • Possibly reduced pain while typing
  • Increased productivity
  • Better focus
  • A more clear separation between work and play
  • Less lethargy throughout the day
  • More memory capacity to deal with multiple tasks

And so the pros outweighed the cons.

Well, what can I say a year later?

All of the above actually came true. I think the points that fascinate me the most are focus, reduced pain and lack of any lethargy (but rather increased energy).

I’ve noticed a clear difference in my ability to focus, especially when trying to debug a problem hidden deep in the code. A simple act of standing makes my brain more active. I thought that “improving memory” is a joke, until I realized that standing simply helps me to keep various objects, methods, files, database schema(s), variables and all things related in my head.
It is as though when standing we have a faster, better and a much larger RAM.

As far as reduced pain, that area has exceeded all expectations. Not only the pain is gone, I’ve noticed an improved posture, plus the minor lower back pain (which I thought might get worse)… is actually gone.

There is a very logical reason behind all this. When sitting down we typically reach towards our computer (keyboard, mouse), and more often than not, in a very non-ergonomic way. (Forward head posture).

Over the years, bad posture and injury develops due improper sitting. This has been documented countless times.

Let’s take this list from WebMD.

Guess what? Pretty much every single one of these problems can be avoided just by standing up during work hours.

It’s very easy to get into an awkward position while sitting. (Leaning over to one side on the elbow, while reaching with the other hand to the keyboard/mouse, with your leg on the chair). It is kind of comfortable for you, as strange as it sounds… but it takes a toll on the body.

Now, stand up, get into an uncomfortable position and try to do something. Wash a glass for example.

Not so easy. Unnatural. Uncomfortable.

Ever try a yoga class?

Thankfully we have countless ergonomic solutions on the market… but why do they exist?

Because we are trying to accomplish something our body was not designed to do. (But don’t take my word for it).

The point is, when standing up our body naturally tries to adjust to a more natural, comfortable position.

I dare you try this…

Sit down, kind of slouching… let’s call it a light natural slouch. Event rest your forearms/hands on your thighs. Now keeping your body exactly as is, try and stand up. For vast majority of people the immediate tendency would be to to pull the shoulders back and assume a more upward position with the head up as well. The legs which are not slouching have to be in sync with the upper body which is now also upright.

All that might be true… but standing for a long time still does not sound great. An ergonomic posture in a proper chair can save the day!

This is true to some extent; but regardless of how ergonomic your chair might be, there are certain muscles (hip flexors) that aren’t getting any work, and remain in constantly constricted state (as opposed to walking or even slightly shifting when standing). And while there is no direct evidence that your hip flexors will “get tighter from too much sitting”, constantly shortened and immobilized muscles do tend to stay constricted.

Muscles that had been immobilized in the lengthened position showed no difference in their length-tension properties to those of normal muscles. However, those immobilized in the shortened position showed a considerable decrease in extensibility.

Believe it or not constricted hip flexors can lead to a number of disorders, aches and pains.

Given all this scientific and personal experimentation evidence, I would say that a move to a stand-up desk is almost a necessity. (Or, at least, partially spend your work day standing, with a laptop at a tall table). This would be of great help especially for those with major and even minor ailments.

How to get the right setup?

Once I decided to switch to a stand-up desk, I went all in. I simply looked at it as purchasing a new office desk, so I splurged for a pretty expensive option.

(I have to say it worked out marvelously; and for me, it is honestly worth every penny).

You can find lots of less expensive options on Amazon or just build your own for a few bucks.

Even if standing all day is not for you, consider taking breaks as often as possible, for example by taking a walk around the office or doing some stretches.

  • mcpace

    Thanks for sharing your story. I have a similar one when I started standing to code websites. May I recommend checking out https://standupdeskshop.com for an attractive & affordable stand up desk conversion kit.

  • Great stuff. Did you consider a varidesk? (not related with brand in any way). Or going “all in” you didn’t want the option to sit?. I have been looking around and having the option to fold de varidesk and sit for a while seems great.

    • TBH, I haven’t heard about varidesk before. seems like a good option for many people. I haven’t really had much need to sit during the day. (I work from a home office). I actually use a stability ball to sit, but that’s a whole other story related to my non-programming life :) … If I have to go to the office for a meeting, I just usually suffer in a good ol’ chair ..

  • mcpace

    The Varidesk wasn’t as popular when I started standing. I have a friend who ordered one and said “I had tried a Varidesk and was horrified when it arrived — at the bulk, the weight, the size, and the sheer ugliness of it.”

    I also have to attend meetings 6-15 a week, which are all sit down meetings. So I’m not standing the entire day. I think there are lots of good options at all different price points with different pros and cons. Be a scientist and find what’s best for your situation.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Everyone is different. Thankfully we have a lot of options today… if someone can only stand for 15 minutes at a time that might be a dozen of life-saving hours a week.

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