I first became aware of the push to encourage more standing at work before I began working from home.
Since then, I have had multiple opportunities to review the research showing that both sitting and standing for prolonged periods can be detrimental to our health.
Standing at work guidelines developed by researchers indicate that, whether we work in the home or out of it, we should divide our productive hours between sitting and standing.
What Are the Potential Health Risks of Sitting?
An estimated half of your waking life is spent sitting, according to an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine. This includes not only time at work but personal time spent reading, watching TV, eating, etc. Remaining sedentary for most of the day is associated with a number of potentially serious health concerns.
A lack of physical activity is associated with weight gain, which could also put you at risk for diabetes and heart disease. There have also been studies connecting sitting at work to certain types of cancers and dementia. Depressingly, even if you are diligent about exercising regularly, even up to an hour per day, it may not be enough to counteract the effects of spending most of your workday sitting.
What Are the Potential Health Risks of Standing?
So if sitting while working is bad, it seems as though standing at work should be good. However, this is an oversimplification. Prolonged standing carries with it its own separate health risks. A Canadian researcher studying ergonomic positions found that when people without a prior history of back problems were asked to work while standing at an ergonomic desk for two consecutive hours, 50% of them started experiencing low back pain.
Holding your body upright requires a lot of effort from the muscles in your back, legs, shoulders, and neck. The prolonged pressure can partially cut off circulation to the muscles, contributing to pain and fatigue. Prolonged standing can also affect the blood vessels in other negative ways. For example, blood can pool in the feet and legs. This can cause swelling, varicosity (stretching of the veins), or phlebitis, which is painful inflammation of the blood vessels.
How Long Should You Stand and Work?
The human body is not designed to stay in one position for a prolonged period of time, except when sleeping. It was built for continual movement, which is difficult in many jobs. Because both sitting or standing for prolonged periods carry potential health risks, the key is to combine the two during the workday, dividing your time between sitting and standing.
Different researchers recommend different standing at work guidelines. The same study that associated two hours of prolonged standing with the development of back pain nevertheless found that a person could remaining standing at work for up to 45 minutes at a time without suffering adverse effects. This is three times as much as the previous recommendation that you should spend 15 minutes out of every hour standing while working.
Another study concluded that you should spend brief periods of your workday standing or walking around. The time that you spend performing this type of light activity during your workday should add up to about two to four hours altogether. If you worked an eight-hour day, this would amount to 15 to 30 minutes out of every work hour spent standing. This, however, would assume that you didn’t take any other breaks throughout the day. If you took a few minutes out of every hour to use the restroom, grab a cup of coffee, or just walk around a little, you wouldn’t have to spend the entire 15 or 30 minutes standing while working.
A Cornell University researcher recommends that up to two-thirds of your workday can be spent sitting. For every 30 minutes that you work, he recommends the following:
- Standing for eight minutes
- Sitting for 20 minutes
- Stretching and moving around for two minutes
Stretching and moving around for two minutes every half hour is consistent with another study published in Occupational Health and Safety Magazine stating that you get more benefit from frequent short breaks than from prolonged ones.
The common denominator in each of the sets of guidelines provided here is at least 15 minutes spent standing during every hour of work. You may increase this as you feel comfortable, up to 45 minutes out of every hour. Changing positions regularly is at least as important as getting the requisite minutes of standing in.
How Can You Apply Standing at Work Guidelines in Your Home Office?
One of the major benefits of working from home is that you can design your workspace to meet your own individual needs. One of the main things you can do to facilitate changes in position for better ergonomics and fewer health issues is to purchase an adjustable desk for your home workspace. There are several different types of adjustable desks available. Some operate with an electric motor or by pneumatics, while others need to be adjusted manually.
You can find adjustable desks for sale at most stores that sell office equipment, whether online or at a brick-and-mortar location. Prices depend on how they operate, with manual desks being less expensive than those that are pneumatic or motorized. If the price of an adjustable desk is prohibitive, you may be able to save money by purchasing a used one. There are stores that specifically sell used office equipment. Despite being secondhand, the stock is often in nearly pristine condition because companies either replace their equipment after a few years or go out of business.
Even if you have a standing desk, you have to remember to change positions fairly often to get the most benefit out of it. Just because you can stand up to 45 minutes at a stretch doesn’t mean that you should stand stock still in one position for the whole time. You can relieve some of the pressure from the muscles and blood vessels of your legs by shifting your weight from one to the other while standing. One way to accomplish this efficiently is to use a footrest for each foot in an alternating fashion. An appropriate height for a footrest is approximately six inches.
Standing on a hard surface for even a relatively short period of time can cause foot pain and potential stress injuries, such as plantar fasciitis. If your work area is not carpeted, you may want to put some sort of cushioning below your feet, such as a mat or a small rug, to avoid putting too much pressure on your feet.
Even if you do have carpeting or cushioning under your feet, you should probably wear shoes while you work if you intend to spend a significant portion of the day standing. Good shoes for work have enough room to accommodate your toes without pinching or squeezing them, adequate arch support, and a slight heel to take pressure off the Achilles tendon.
It is not always possible to alternate between standing and sitting at work. Some jobs require one position or the other. Regardless of whether you work sitting, standing, or alternating between the two, observe other good ergonomic practices at all times.