The stand up desk rises to the occasion

Like most Americans, I lead a largely sedentary lifestyle. I’ve never been particularly athletic. The closest I’ve ever been was 5 years of forced physical training courtesy of the United States Army. That experience drilled in me a particular distaste for exercise, so with the exception of some fair weather golf, I don’t get much exercise. Between my disdain for exercise and my hectic schedule, carving out time to go to the gym just ain’t happening. Naturally, this creates a vicious cycle: I’m too sedentary, so I get heavier, which only makes me more sedentary, so I get heavier still, and so on.

I sit too much

I recognized some time ago that like most American office workers, I sit far too much. I sit at work, I sit in the car when I travel, I sit in my recliner when I’m home watching TV or playing on the XBox.  Basically, I’m sitting my life away, and over the last few years I’ve really started to notice the difference. My legs, hips, and back hurt most of the time to some extent or another. And of course it doesn’t help that I passed the magical 40 barrier.

There are plenty of articles supporting the idea that sitting is killing us, and really it’s just common sense.  For the office professional, the question becomes “how do I work on my computer all day without sitting?” There are many suggestions but ultimately they all boil down to one idea: get out of your chair. Whether you are stretching, walking, or doing pushups, you have to get out of your chair first. When I wrote about the Pomodoro Technique back in 2009, one of my key points was that during breaks you need to get out of your chair and walk around:

Breaks are essential to the success of the system.  While it may not count as exercise, getting out of your chair is physically good for you.

Getting out of your chair is much harder than it sounds. I was successful when I was strictly following Pomodoro, but otherwise I find it really difficult to tear myself away, especially in the afternoons. Even with the best of intentions, after lunch I can sit for 3 to 5 hours sometimes before I realize it. Sure, it can be done, but you have to have more discipline than me to make it work.

A simple solution

Surprisingly, the answer is drastically simple: don’t sit, stand instead. It turns out that there are a lot of options out there for stand up desks.  I read about them in several articles, and I was curious, but had little to compare it to and plenty of questions. How does that work in a real setting? Won’t your feet hurt? Where do I buy a stand up desk? What if I need to sit for a while? I was also taken back a bit by the cost of some of the stand up desks on the market, and I wasn’t about to invest a bunch of money in something like that without testing it first.

I skirted around the idea for quite a while, talking to people, getting opinions, and generally avoiding actually trying it out. For one thing, I didn’t have access to one of these desks, which is a convenient excuse.  Then I visited a local co-working space and there was a guy there with a stand up desk. More accurately, there was a guy there with a cardboard box on a table, using it like a stand up desk. It dawned on me that I was procrastinating for no reason, so only a couple of months later, I decided to give it a try for myself.

A simple box desk

The box was a fruit box, which was sturdy and large enough for my laptop, mouse, and coffee cup.  The 2nd monitor is on a shelf behind the box. I already had the box, so it really gave me a chance to try it out for free.

Making the move

The biggest challenge for me was that all the recommendations say not to overdo it. I have a tendency to go whole hog, so I tried really hard the first couple of days to only stand half the time.  The first couple of days, I could feel it in my feet and legs, but my hips and back felt much better. I did worse on days 3 and 4, I ended up standing all day each day. Yes, by the end of each day I was ready to sit, and yes my feet hurt a bit more, but otherwise I felt great. What I figured out was that this is not just about not sitting, or even standing: it’s about movement. Being on my feet all day forces me to move around a lot. I’m constantly shifting my weight, or stretching muscles that normally lie dormant. And the momentum is already there, so walking around the room a bit or even out of it comes naturally. My favorite part is on phone or Internet calls. I use a headset, so I can move around during the call, use regular body language, and basically get more involved in the conversation. This all may sound minor, but it eventually adds up to a superior experience.

Also, I have slept even better than ever since I started, because at the end of the day I’m tired – not from sitting on my rump all day, but from physical activity, which is a very rewarding kind of tired. Oh, and the best thing of all? At the end of the day, sitting down feels really good!

By the morning of day 5 I was hooked and ready to commit, the only decision left was which desk to buy. I did some research and found that there are a lot of options when considering a stand up desk. You can get a gadget that hooks to your existing desk, you can get a desk that is all stand up all the time, you can get a sit-stand desk, you can even get a Treadmill Desk. For a while, I seriously considered a treadmill desk, but it really wouldn’t work in the space I have and since I hadn’t tried one I wasn’t willing to commit to the idea.  I may work up to one some day, just not yet.

What most of the articles I read said was that you still need the option to sit, so to me that meant buying a sit-stand desk. Again, there are plenty of desks out there to choose from with a wide range of styles and prices. One important issue for me is that my work space is in my bedroom, so it has to look nice as well, and unfortunately a lot of the options out there look rather industrial.

At that point, I still had a choice to make: manual or power.  The manual desks either have preset heights that you can adjust to, or have hand cranks to allow finer settings. The preset desks would not be conducive to adjustments during the day, or with a full complement of computer equipment on them. I did not relish the idea of a crank-up desk, and besides, what self-respecting geek doesn’t want power? So I decided to find a power desk.

The problem with power desks is they seem very expensive. I found some that were more than $3,000, but don’t worry those were extreme examples. I needed something sturdy, reliable, and attractive that wouldn’t break the bank. Fortunately, I found it at UpDesk.

The UpDesk PowerUp

Several things impressed me about UpDesk. First, they have a great website. I love the video section – short, funny, to the point. I even watched the “how to assemble” video before I purchased (more on that later). Second, I emailed them and received a response from an actual person in under 30 minutes. Finally, their prices won’t break the bank: I bought the largest one (72″ x 30″) and it was less than $1,000 not including shipping. Shipping was $139 which is perfectly reasonable considering it comes in three boxes and weighs over 70lbs.

The design is simple and very well thought out. There are two leg posts that are set back out of the way, each with its own motor. They are connected by a stretcher that you can use as a cable run, which I’ve also found I can prop my foot on when standing.

Legs and stretcher
Legs and stretcher

The top is thick and sturdy, with an curved front, and all the corners are rounded. And it is definitely attractive with a clean and elegant look that my wife does not protest having in the bedroom. You can choose from 4 different colors, Maple (the one I chose), Mahogany, Black, and Orange (limited to 60″ x 30″).

A word about price

If it seems excessive to spend that much money on a desk, I understand the thought, and I balked at the idea at first myself. Here are a few thoughts I had on the matter. The Money Factor: office furniture is not all that cheap to begin with, and nice office furniture is very expensive. Sure, you can buy cheap laminated particle board furniture, but as the old saying goes “you get what you pay for”. The Time Factor: I don’t know about you, but I spend more time every day at my desk than I do in my bed, so I should be willing to make an investment in a great work space. The Health Factor: ultimately this is about my health, and this seems a small price to pay for something that will make me healthier.

And don’t forget, there are manual options as well that are more affordable. In fact, UpDesk’s crank (video) system seems far better than any of the others I saw in my research, and several hundred dollars less expensive.

Assembling your desk

I ordered the desk on Friday, it shipped on Monday, and I received it on Wednesday. It comes in three boxes, one large heavy one for the desktop, one medium heavy one for the legs and power system, and one long light one for the stretcher. The design is so simple that assembly is really easy. Basically, you connect the legs together with the stretcher, connect the legs to the desktop, and add the power supply and cables. I followed the great installation video and had it put together in about an hour. It took me a little longer because my power drill is broken, so I used manual tools.

And speaking of tools, here’s what you’ll need: a #3 Phillips head screw driver, a 1/4″ Hex drive (if you don’t have one of these, a #2 Phillips head screw driver should work), and a #1 Phillips head screw driver. Add in a little elbow grease and you’ll be done in no time. The biggest challenge I had was unpacking all the parts. Let’s just say that if your desk arrives damaged, call the authorities because the delivery guys ran over it with their truck several times. Oh, and if you love bubble wrap (and who doesn’t?), you’ll get a years supply gratis.

Enough already, where are the pics?

Here are some pics of my assembled desk.

Standing position
Standing position
Sitting position
Sitting position

I learned something else that I never realized: my old desk was too tall. Even with my adjustable chair all the way up, I never realized I was holding my arms at an uncomfortable angle. With this desk, even sitting I am able to get the desk at just the right height for me.

Push button height adjustment with digital display
Push button height adjustment with digital display

The underside is very neat and tidy, thanks to the supplied cable holders.

Cable management
Cable management

And of course, I wrote this entire article standing at my new desk.

Additional reading

Phil Haack – Sitting is making you fat and killing you

Steve Smith – Walking while working

The power of walking while working

Standing desks better for kids too

Working while standing proves beneficial for health

Prolonged sitting shown to be bad for your health

2 thoughts on “The stand up desk rises to the occasion

  1. So I could get a manual and possibly get my strength training session in. HRMMMMM.

    How to you suggest talking a company into buying one of these?

    Also, does your desk make cool noises when it raises and lowers? Like the age ole “doom” sound of a door opening and closing? That would be cool.

    1. I think you’d have to sell the company on the health benefits as well as the fact that it isn’t all that more expensive than decent office furniture.

      It makes a very quiet electronic whirring noise as it goes up and down but nothing special. Maybe we could modify it to do cool noises!

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