It’s no secret that there’s a growing trend in office work of replacing the standard desk with a standing desk. Standing up while working has a wide range of health benefits, from everything from your digestion to your posture to your neck pain.
We’ve written before about some of the benefits you can achieve through standing, as well as some of the things you can do to improve your posture and your health when you’re forced to sit. Whether you want an under-desk treadmill, an elliptical machine, or a simple balance board, you can find some benefit from standing. Beyond that, though, standing instead of sitting has a range of benefits.
What effect does standing have, specifically, on your joints and muscles?
Standing Desks Reduce Back Pain
A large part of back pain we all suffer chronically at office jobs comes from muscles in your core being thrown out of balance. Some muscles relax, so they’re not worked, and they’re not used to being worked when you need them. Other muscles spend all day tensed up, tightening into knots and causing radiating pain up and down your back. This pain relief effect has been verified by numerous studies and overviews of scientific literature.
Not all back pain is muscle pain, of course. Many backaches come from compressed discs, slipped or herniated discs, or other spinal issues. Standing desks help with those as well, but as they’re not muscle or joint issues, we’re not going into detail here today.
Standing Desks Reduce Neck Strain
Unless you’ve put a lot of effort into the ergonomics of your workspace, including lumbar support in your chair, a monitor stand or riser for your screens, a negative tilt for your keyboard, an easy and ergonomic mouse or trackball, and careful balancing of your lighting, chances are you’re going to end up with neck pain sooner or later. Most people – especially those who work on laptops frequently – find that they have neck pain at the end of a long day.
What’s going on? Typically, when you’re sitting down, your neck is not in a neutral position. Your head, rather than being balanced directly over top of your neck and spine, is tilted either up or down. This does two things: it forces your neck and shoulder muscles to adapt to hold it up, and it tenses some muscles while releasing others, similar to the cause of back pain above.
An easier way to cope with this is to stand while working. When standing, your body naturally maintains a more correct posture, unless you’ve reached a point where the damage is already done. This allows your neck more flexibility and freedom of movement. Additionally, if you have a standing desk, chances are good you’ll get yourself a keyboard tray and a monitor arm to further help improve your comfort and productivity.
Standing Reduces Headaches
One of the problems of sitting is that tension can build up with no outlet. Muscle tension, particularly in your neck and shoulders, leads to tension headaches. Tension headaches can be particularly distracting and exhausting to deal with, and when they’re triggered by a long day at work, they can become even worse, compounding over time.
Standing up allows you more freedom of movement, and lets you stretch and move your neck and shoulders much more often, which helps reduce the incidence of headaches.
Standing up might not eliminate headaches, of course. Glaring lights, droning noises, tension from other sources, and even triggers like scents can all be present in an office environment, and a standing desk won’t do anything to take care of them. Every trigger you can remove from your life will benefit you, however, and standing up can help significantly.
Standing Encourages Healing
One of the biggest issues with sitting in a typical office chair is cutting off blood flow to your lower body. When you sit, the pressure is placed on your glutes and tailbone. The front edge of your chair may also be too far forward or tilted upwards, which can press into the back of your thighs or your knees. Both of these put pressure on the arteries and blood vessels that run throughout your torso, pelvis, and legs. When pressure is put on those veins, it’s like putting a kink in a garden hose. The pressure of your blood increases as your heart tries harder to pump through the compression, and circulation throughout your legs is reduced.
This can lead to all manner of problems, including poor healing from muscle fatigue and working out. Since blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your cells to keep them alive, restricting blood flow hurts them in the short term and the long run. Standing up allows for more free circulation throughout your legs, letting your heart pump more evenly, reducing blood pressure build-up, and encouraging healing.
Standing Helps Swollen Ankles
If you’re older and you’ve spent a lot of time working at a desk, you might notice that you have issues with your ankles swelling up. This is similar to the blood flow issues above but can be exacerbated by other effects like the ambient temperature, and health issues like diabetes that you may have or may be developing.
Swollen ankles don’t sound like something that could be solved by standing up, and in some cases, they aren’t. You might need medical treatment or something like compression socks to help with the issue. However, standing up encourages circulation, and part of your circulation is blood flow. Swollen ankles happen primarily because blood can flow into your legs but not back out, either due to constriction of the vessels or due to an external cause. When you stand, more freedom of circulation means more ability for your blood to then leave your ankles rather than pooling up.
As an added benefit, this helps prevent issues like varicose veins, as well as deep vein thrombosis, a condition where pooled blood begins to clot up inside your veins, causing pain and discomfort.
Standing Help Strengthen Bones
Virtually any physical activity can help build stronger bones. Strong bones are a combination of nutrition, health, and activity, and are a key component of keeping you healthy, happy, and pain-free throughout your life.
While few things beat an active lifestyle and a healthy diet, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle can help a lot. Standing up while working – or transitioning between sitting and standing throughout the day – can be better than simply sitting all day at work.
Stronger bones mean stronger joints. One of the leading causes of joint pain is bones that wear away at the cartilage that lubricates them. Cartilage doesn’t grow back, so once it has worn away, the pain is largely there to stay until you reach a point of surgical intervention. You can only treat the symptoms. Our recommendation is, of course, to strive to prevent the wear and tear from happening at all. That means keeping a healthier, more active lifestyle.
You can boost this by practicing active sitting, adding an under-desk treadmill to your routine, or simply spending some time exercising and stretching at your desk every day.
Standing Reduces Muscle Degeneration
In the same way that standing up helps encourage blood circulation, which in turn encourages muscle healing, you can slow down muscle degeneration by spending some time standing instead of sitting throughout the day. Using a standing desk is one of the best ways to accomplish this if your work is otherwise sedentary and tethered to a computer, phone, or desk.
When you spend significant amounts of time sitting, parts of your body go into sleep mode. Some of your organs work a little less, some work a little more, but it’s not how your body is meant to operate for 15+ hours every day. You already get those effects when you’re sleeping; you don’t need them when you’re awake as well.
Your hip flexors, the muscles that help keep your hips mobile and flexible as joints, are particularly at risk when you spend a lot of time sitting. When you stand, micro-adjustments to your balance help keep those muscles working, which keeps them strong and healthy.
Standing Helps Work Your Core
One of the benefits we’ve touched on but haven’t focused on is the muscles in your core. Your core is surrounded by muscles that have to work to keep your body in equilibrium. They’re part of how you keep your balance, and they’re an integral part of a healthy body.
When you sit for long periods, your core muscles tend to lock. Some of them are stuck tight and have a hard time relaxing again. Others relax and lose some of their strength because they aren’t being used as much.
Let’s be clear here; your core muscles aren’t getting a workout when you stand instead of sit. The micro-adjustments your body makes to keep your balance are important for keeping your core loose, but they won’t build strength or muscle mass. For that, you need to work out.
Standing also helps you work out your other muscle groups. Your glutes in particular can benefit from being tensed and worked as you stand, though again, exercise is better for you than just standing. Every little bit helps, however, so standing is always a good alternative to sitting.
Standing Helps Flexibility
More than just your muscles lock up when you’re sitting all day. Other parts of the body, including tendons and ligaments, tend to tighten and lock up as well. When you aren’t actively stretching or working them, these parts of your body tighten and lose their flexibility.
If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t reach back to scratch that part of your back like you used to, or why it’s harder than ever to reach down to touch your toes, that’s the reason. The longer you spend sitting instead of standing or working out, the more you’re going to lose in terms of flexibility, and the harder it will be to get it all back.
Sitting is unfortunately like digging a hole. The longer you persist at it, the harder it is to dig yourself back out of it later.
Standing Has Many Other Benefits
Using a standing desk, and particularly sitting and standing in equal parts throughout the day, has a wide range of benefits beyond just benefits to muscles and joints.
For example, when you sit, your pancreas goes into overdrive. Your pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, the hormone that converts the sugar in the blood into energy. Excess insulin is bad; it doesn’t give you more energy, it just makes your body more resistant to insulin. Insulin resistance leads to sugar build-up, which can lead to diabetes, and eventually diabetic ketoacidosis. Suffice it to say, this is bad.
Standing can also lead to a range of mental and emotional benefits. Many people report being able to focus better, with reductions in the severity of ADD and ADHD. Others report feeling more self-confident and empowered throughout their lives. The enhancement of posture that comes from spending time standing is also beneficial.
In addition to standing, we recommend practicing active sitting using a stool instead of a traditional office chair or investing in a very adjustable and high-quality office chair for your sitting needs. When you’re standing, as well, you should take the time to do stretches and exercises to keep yourself limber, flexible, and strong throughout the day.
We would recommend using an under-desk exercise machine like a treadmill, but this can be a hard sell for many office environments. However, if you work from home and don’t need to worry as much about noise irritating those around you, feel free to invest in an exercise machine.
Regardless of which particular health pressure is pushing you away from your office job and your sedentary life, standing desks almost always have something to offer you. By picking up a standing desk, you can minimize the effects of “sitting disease” and help keep your body healthier overall.
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