Regulars and Shorts

Somanaut: Get Up!

By Dan Schmidt

Standing desks improve health. Here’s how to set one up.

Our culture sits more than any other society in history. Much of our life is experienced less than two feet from our faces. What are the effects of sitting and staring at a monitor for endless hours?

Hunter gatherers didn’t have Mac books. We evolved to walk and see. That means our vision is designed to work from a moving platform, and to perceive a variety of distances, colors, sizes and shapes—all in natural light. Holding the body still leaves the eye muscles to do all the work of creating a visual field. 

I suggest a standing workstation and a tall stool rather than a regular office chair. Thomas Jefferson sometimes stood to read and write. He was much too tall to fit in the average chair of his time. Ernest Hemingway wrote all his novels standing at his writing table. David K. Reynolds, therapist and prolific author, writes at his stand-up desk for four hours each morning and says standing helps him stay focused. Standing desks have also been used in Minnesota schools, showing benefits for ADHD kids.

Prices range from a DIY unit built with what’s already in the basement to thousands of dollars. Motorized height-adjustable desks are great if you share your workstation, or if you just want to impress people with your cool toys. I personally use an Ikea Fredrik work station ($149).

standingdeskHere is my set-up for a desktop computer with a separate monitor and keyboard.

Get a tape measure. Measure the distance from the floor to your elbow. Position the desktop so that your keyboard and mouse are one to two inches below your elbow height—any higher and you will lift your shoulders a bit every time you move your hands. The shoulder-lifting muscles are connected to your neck and head, so when they pull your shoulders up, they also pull your head down. Fighting to keep your head up is a major cause of headaches and back pain, so it is worth paying careful attention to the height of your keyboard. Conversely, reaching up to use your mouse is very tiring, and can lead to “mouse arm”—tight swollen arm and shoulder muscles, as well as tension headaches.

Get a mouse with a track ball option, especially if you use your mouse extensively. You can learn to switch back and forth from moving the mouse to rolling the track ball. Some people even switch sides midday, using the mouse right-handed in the morning and left-handed in the afternoon.

The top shelf will hold your monitor. To position it properly, lookstraight ahead and measure from the floor to your chin. The center of the screen goes at chin level. So you need to measure your monitor from the base (not just the bottom of the screen) to its center, and subtract that from your chin height. That gives you the level for your monitor shelf. Even an inch or two difference will make your neck muscles work more.

A stand-up workstation is an easy do-it-yourself project. Wall-mounted shelves, or the classic cinder block and board shelving favored by grad students everywhere, will do. Fine adjustments can be made with stacks of old textbooks or other props. A more upscale solution would be to place this set-up in a deep bookshelf, with doors to hide it when not in use.

Position the screen at least 16 inches from your face. My set-up with the wider shelf for my keyboard ensures that I am about 22 inches away. Being too close to the screen makes your eyes work harder. If you need larger print to see better, hit command-plus on Macs (control-plus on PCs). Try it out, and check to see if you feel more relaxed. Longer focal length means less work for your eye muscles, less “near point strain.” Get a bigger monitor if you can’t get the print large enough at that distance. You will love the comfort.

Laptops bring a different set of challenges. Simplest laptop solution: Do the same things and add a remote keyboard ($12-plus for PCs, $50-80 Macs). Another solution requires a frame to hold your laptop in a tilted position, i.e. the keyboard is angled up from the edge to the screen. The idea is that the screen height is the same (centered at your chin), your elbows will be bent a lot to get your hands on the keyboard. It can be done, but I recommend the separate keyboard as it is easier. The advantage of a frame is that it can be portable.

If you can’t stand long enough to do what you need to do, and you really can’t do less, then you need a tall stool. Your stool should let you sit with your head at exactly the same height as when you stand. Then you won’t need to adjust your monitor, keyboard and mouse every time you take a sitting break.

Recent research indicates that having your knees lower than your hips creates less pressure on your spinal discs. The stool’s seat needs to be high enough so it is downhill from your hips to your knees, rather than the more common sitting position where knees and hips are at right angles.

The low seats of modern desk chairs encourage slumping. It might feel nice at first, (the initial stretch can feel great), but curling forward squashes your digestive organs and stretches your back muscles so they overwork. Most of us can’t sit for long in a low chair without slumping. If you have tight hamstrings, the tension will pull your pelvis under and start the slump eventually, no matter how careful you are.

Your feet should easily sit flat. On a tall stool, you will need a prop for your feet, like a wooden box or bench. Any lifting, or even tilting, of the feet will reduce your stability and cause your hip muscles to tighten. This pulls your pelvis out of position, tipping the foundation for your spine. As a result, all your spinal muscles will tense to maintain your balance. Over time, this can lead to serious problems, including the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, general back pain and sciatica.

A firm seat is better than a soft one. Soft seats allow us to sag into our favorite spots, and eventually create a depression that almost forces us into bad habits.

The back of a chair is decoration. Never lean back and work. Leaning back means you have to work your neck very hard to be able to see forward, and then strain to lift your arms to reach the keyboard. Likewise, slumping down, so that you round your low back toward the back of the chair, is brutal for your neck, shoulders, and back. A tall stool makes both of these problems easier to solve. Adjustable stools, like doctors’ exam stools, are nice, but may not go up enough. Lab stools are a better bet. For long-legged people, it will take some hunting to find a tall enough stool.

And now for a blunt truth: Eight hours a day of anything is too much. Your body craves variety, and breaks down under monotony. Because you are already standing, you can simply walk away from the desk, open the door, and head outside! 

Dan Schmidt is a Feldenkrais practitioner, bodyworker and dance instructor in Salt Lake City. He teaches classes for the public and for massage therapists.

This article was originally published on October 31, 2011.