Don't just sit there — People finding relief from sedentary ways by using standing desks

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:04 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Jason Rollins, assistant director at MU Office of Web Communications, stands and works at his desk in McReynolds Hall on Nov. 9. Rollins believes standing will help avoid back problems and improve his health.

COLUMBIA — Sometimes, Jason Rollins can't just stand there: He has to bust a move.

"You may find me gyrating or dancing to the music — that's what happens when you're standing up," said Rollins, 32, the assistant director for the Office of Web Communications at MU. "When you're sitting down, you might just tap your toe, but when you're standing up, you might just give in to the beat a little bit."


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Rollins made his own standing desk during a lunch break last year, and now he often finds himself dancing. He used an old bookshelf and sawed up boards so that the top shelf was tall enough to hold his computer at eye level.

Rollins is one of a growing number of Columbia residents who have found benefits in having a standing work space. 

"Some days I forget I'm even standing and work all day," he said. "When I'm standing, and I have stuff to do, I stay more focused than I would if I were sitting." 

Rollins also appreciates the versatility his desk offers: There are no "barriers" to walking in or out of the room and getting to work at the desk.

It also made life simpler by freeing up space. After adding the standing desk, he was able to add a futon and recliner to his office.

"If you have a little cube or small office, it's worth thinking about," he said.

Science and support 

Even adults who get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week are at an increased risk for heart disease if they sit during the day, said John Thyfault, 37, associate professor and director of the Health Activity Center at MU. Thyfault researches how inactivity leads to diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

“And the reason is that we were designed to move," Thyfault said. “During evolution over millions of years, we had to move on a daily basis to survive. Now we are sitting in a chair where we completely deactivate all of the skeletal muscles of our lower body." 

James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has found that people tend to be more sedentary at work than on leisure days.

One of his studies, published in 2009, showed that because most people in high-income countries are employed, workplace physical activity is important to reverse inactivity and obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of adults in the U.S. are obese, which can lead to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and stroke.

As a way to promote activity in the workplace, Levine worked with Steelcase, an office furniture company, to come up with a standing desk design, Thyfault said. 

What keeps you sedentary and how do you stay active? Tell us here.

Standing desks vary in shape and price

Columbia business Marathon Building Environments sells Steelcase products including Airtouch tables, which are height-adjustable desks that can hold up to 150 pounds, and Walkstations, which are height-adjustable desks with treadmills that can go up to 2 mph. Airtouch tables sell at around $1,000, and Walkstations go for about $3,500.

Lifestyles Furniture, another Columbia retailer, sells standing desks starting at $499. Owner Jerome Rackers said the store began selling standing desks six years ago, but the sales increased in the past two years as the price has come down.  

Some choose to build their own standing desk.

Josh Oxenhandler, 38, modified a music stand with "$10 of materials and some thinking," he said.

Oxenhandler, who is an attorney at Holder Susan Slusher Oxenhandler law firm in Columbia, found himself hunched over the computer screen for hours a day.

"It's not healthy for my back," he said. 

Oxenhandler bought his first standing desk more than a year ago. He splurged on it when he moved into his new office. At first, he expected to split his time between sitting and standing, but the only time he lowers his desk these days is when he's showing people how the height adjusts. 

"I have experienced a greater degree of energy in terms of doing my job," he said. "It leads to stronger legs, stronger back and stronger ab muscles."

A different work lifestyle 

Mark Milanick, professor of medical pharmacology and physiology at MU, gave up driving to work about 10 years ago and now walks. He realized that though he was spending 2 1/2 hours per day walking, that left 14 1/2 hours a day of potential sitting time.

"That is seven times more time sitting," he said while standing at one of the four standing desks in his lab.

The Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at MU is buying standing desks for its staff. 

Chris Hardin, faculty administrator for the department, wants to provide desks to all full-time faculty and administrative staff. Hardin said his department should lead the way for the university in having an active lifestyle at work.

"Not only talk the talk, but walk the walk, so to speak," he said. 

Hardin said the desks are a good investment because, though they can be expensive, they can potentially save in health care costs if employees lead healthier lives.

"I believe it will more than pay for itself over time," he said.

The secret: comfort 

Transitioning to a standing desk can be risky if not done correctly, said writer Mark Lukach in an article for Lukach is a former high school teacher who has written for The New York Times. In his article, he advises beginners to start slow by doing only one task a day such as sending emails while standing and increasing the amount of time as it becomes more comfortable.

According to, an Amish furniture manufacturer, "there is no science involved in determining what is the correct height a standing desk should be." A general rule is that monitors should be positioned at eye level, and keyboards should be adjusted so forearms are parallel to the ground. 

Standing in place for hours at a time can be detrimental as well. Thyfault said prolonged standing has been linked to varicose veins but can be alleviated by moving around or walking.

Lukach recommends using a floor mat or supportive shoes and placing an object nearby to lean against from time to time.

"The whole idea is to feel comfortable," Oxenhandler said.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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Glenn Rice November 27, 2012 | 3:12 p.m.

Pro tip: Use a tall stool to sit on from time to time.

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