· Features

HR editorial team tries... standing desks

Health professionals are adamant that sitting all day is bad for health and productivity. We put that to the test

Sitting is as bad for you as smoking.” As headlines go it’s a pretty terrifying one, especially for those of us who spend most of our working days tied to our desks. It was James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic, who coined it, warning: “We are sitting ourselves to death.”

While as the inventor of the treadmill desk Levine does have a vested interest here, there’s no doubt the active working movement is picking up pace. According to Gavin Bradley, founder of wellness organisation Active Working: “The average office worker sits for 10 hours a day and 70% of this sitting time takes place at work. Researchers have long warned that prolonged sitting is dangerous; associated with a significantly higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression, and muscle and joint problems.”

Active Working is campaigning to get people moving in the workplace. “Our first order of business is to get people to spend two hours of their work day not sitting,” says Bradley, whether that’s holding walking meetings or using sit/stand desks.

The HR magazine team decided to take the latter (a Pro Plus 36 Varidesk) for a spin. Would it make us more productive and miraculously healthier? Or would we just end up with sore feet? Read on to find out...

Bek Frith, reporter

On the first day of using the standing desk I was genuinely worried I was annoying my colleagues with the frequent sounds coming from my bones. My spine creaked, my legs clicked, and my hips made an unusual ticking sound whenever I moved.

It has only been nine months since I stopped working in a café at the weekends – on my feet for hours at a time – but already the effects of sitting on my bum for most of the day have become apparent. On this first day I was painfully aware that while I had a good view of the office, they all had a good view of me. At first I was self-conscious; trying to demonstrate good posture while standing in ways that hid my obvious passion for carbohydrates. However, after a few hours I swallowed my pride and allowed myself to stand more naturally, and felt far better for it.

Some people claim that a standing desk has helped to improve their concentration, but that definitely did not apply to me. While I found phone calls, research, and firing off emails just fine when standing, when it came to serious, fingers-to-keyboard action I couldn’t focus unless I’d moved the device into the sitting position.

However, a warning: anyone who sees you with it in the sitting position will gleefully ask if it has defeated you. Or encourage you to get back on to your weary feet.

Jenny Roper, deputy editor

This was it. Today was the day. The day my working life would be revolutionised. Nay, the day I discovered the secret… to longer life.

My thoughts and feelings at the end of the day? Most accurately: ‘meh’. And also: ‘ouch’. I was fine when standing, but every time I set off walking I discovered my feet felt like I’d been pounding the high street all day – and without several ill-advised Topshop purchases and a disgruntled boyfriend to show for it…

A cursory bit of research revealed I’d apparently been doing standing all wrong – an unnerving revelation circa 27 years in... Most standing desk gurus recommend a nice cushiony standing mat, or at the very least wearing trainers.

I also discovered through my research that slouching on one hip is a no-no, and that I should be, and I quote, “constantly engaging my core”.

And so perhaps my verdict should be ‘needs more practice’ (and possibly gym workouts). The real issue was that I didn’t feel that much more productive to when I’m sat down. And I found it near impossible to do any kind of more open-ended pondering and planning (deciding which Topshop purchases to return, for example).

I did, however, find it quite helpful when doing specific writing and editing tasks – my subconscious being so guileless that it had, I think, a misguided sensation that a nice comfy sit down would be the reward for task completion. I usually find the more conscious, self-enforced withholding of a Twix just as useful on this front though…

Siân Harrington, publisher

I looked on enviously as my colleagues took turns to use the standing desk over the week. When would it be my time to try it?

Having read so much about the benefits, and also having become seriously unfit over the past five years as my job became more sedentary (either glued to my desk in London or spending hours a day on trains down to Wiltshire), I was desperate to try it.

First issue – finding space on my extremely cluttered desk to put it. Luckily reporter Bek Frith was on hand to help me move it over and set it up. Once you get the knack it really is quite easy. When I realised I could move it back to seating position with what is effectively a flick of a switch it was even better. By the afternoon I was up and down like a yo-yo.

I loved using the desk. I did find it concentrated my efforts, mostly as I couldn’t get the phone positioned properly on it and didn’t have the usual mass of papers in front of me. I also felt healthier. Yes this was a feeling rather than reality, but using the desk did encourage me to walk 20 minutes to a different bus stop to get home that evening.

It was only after I got off the bus I felt the after effects. I couldn’t walk. It felt like I had two huge blisters on my feet and I was convinced my shoes would be full of blood when I took them off. Weirdly, neither was the case but, as my colleagues say, you do need the right cushioning to use this. Otherwise, like me, you will be walking home balancing on the outer edges of your feet. Time to get some trainers…

Katie Jacobs, editor

I like to think of myself as an active person. I walk a lot, I work out several times a week, and I chose to spend my most recent holiday climbing a mountain in Nepal (don’t ask why). So I assumed spending a day on a standing desk would be easy. I was wrong. I have apparently become so conditioned to spending my days in the office sitting down that standing for more than 20 minutes felt like a huge ask.

After a few hours my whole body ached. After a day (with some sitting breaks) I convinced myself I’d done some serious damage to my right foot (note to self: choose more appropriate footwear next time) and concluded extensive standing was physically more challenging than a lunchtime spin class, and that I would rather take a walking meeting than stand for an hour.

But while standing was physically tougher than I imagined I did notice a productivity benefit. I felt more alert standing and found it helped me focus on specific tasks, such as writing and editing.

Would I commit to a standing desk full time? My job isn’t as sedentary as many, given I spend a lot of time outside the office. Those days at my desk are often a welcome relief. If I was behind a desk every day, however, I would welcome the opportunity to switch up my routine – if wearing more comfortable shoes.

Thirza Tooes, sub editor

Me and standing desks will never be firm friends. I would far rather lay in some futuristic work pod with screens hovering in front of my eyes. But that’s because I’m very lazy, and standing desks were probably designed exactly for people like me.

Perhaps the (slight) change of scene, or the unusual altitude, meant my brain received more oxygen, but whatever the cause I did feel more awake. This lasted roughly 60 minutes. After that the small of my back was aching and I had an almost uncontrollable urge to stand bent at the waist in a right-angle. Which is probably far worse for my posture than sitting.

By the afternoon my feet felt like a sadistic yogi was making me walk repeatedly over hot coals. This was only soothed by taking my shoes off and standing on an Ostrich pillow (designed for office napping, not standing on) that we happened to have.

While the idea behind standing desks is admirable, the reality for me wasn’t great.