What the health: Should I be standing while I work?

12 December 2022

With all the hype about standing desks, should we all be adopting them, and what is the best way to go about making the shift? Research from The University of Queensland is helping breakdown the recommendations for workers to reap the rewards.

Many of us sit for long periods at work, and where long periods of sitting have been shown to increase the risk of obesity and heart disease, prolonged standing is also linked to problems such as fatigue and back pain.

This can be really confusing for workers, with both prolonged sitting and prolonged standing being problematic from a health perspective.

What does the research say?

The current guidelines strongly point towards the value of varying postures, positions and alternating between sitting and standing throughout the day. Research supports the use of standing desks where alternating between sitting and standing can be achieved easily and regularly. Research has also indicated that despite alternating between sitting and standing feeling like an inconvenience at times, there is no negative impact on productivity.

What can you do?Lady standing at a sit-stand desk

Your choice of style of standing desk should come down to what is easiest to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day, and of course, your budget. Options include:

  • A rising standing desk where the whole desk platform can be raised easily is usually the best option, but these are often the most expensive.
  • Where space isn’t an issue, separate desks may be an option. This can work in hot-desk environments where a laptop can be moved easily between surfaces or multiple different desktop computers can be used. This can also be an option when working from home where a laptop can be moved to a small platform on a bench.
  • Risers can be a cost-effective option. These sit on top of an existing surface and can be raised along with the main work surface components such as monitor, keyboard and mouse.

How do I get started?

We want to aim for a total of around 4 hours standing across an 8-hour day, but this can be a lot if you’re not accustomed. To start with, aim for a total of 2 hours per day, with 20-30 minutes in standing interspersed across the day.

It’s quite common to experience fatigue or other sensations in the legs and lower back when starting out, so if these are not relieved with shifting weight between legs or taking a short walk, then you may need to take a rest by returning to sitting sooner.

When looking to increase the amount of standing, aim for more frequent periods of standing, then increase this over time, aiming for 4 hours across the workday. Don’t worry, it may take several weeks for the body to adjust!

Illustration of a man working at a sit-stand deskHow should I set myself up?

  • When standing, aim for relaxed shoulders and a 90-degree angle at the elbow and desk height just below your forearms –  very similar to how you would normally sit.
  • The mouse and keyboard should be the same as when you’re sitting – close to the front of the desk with just enough space between them and the front of the desk to support the wrists. 
  • Like when sitting, your eyes should be in line with the top of the screen when looking directly in front.
  • Feet are firmly on the floor, shoulder width apart and knees relaxed and not locked.
  • Try to think about keeping your ribcage over your hips so you aren’t leaning forward or backward.
  • Shift your weight regularly – this might be moving weight to one leg at a time or small steps on the spot when you are noticing fatigue.

Important to remember

Standing desks are a great option to limit sitting during the day but they are not a replacement for physical activity! Regular physical activity through exercise is essential for good physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Roma ForbesDr Roma Forbes is an experienced APA titled musculoskeletal physiotherapist and Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy at UQ's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.