Health & Fitness

Standing while working boosts your posture and health

STANDING DESK DEVOTEE: Marla Neufeld, with Greenspoon Marder Law, chats with coworkers.
STANDING DESK DEVOTEE: Marla Neufeld, with Greenspoon Marder Law, chats with coworkers. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

When Fort Lauderdale lawyer Chuck Lichtman was walking with his wife in their suburban neighborhood one recent evening, he spotted a man close to his age walking in a hunched position.

“That won’t be me,” Lichtman said to his wife. With the realization he is turning 60 this year, Lichtman, a partner at Berger Singerman, took several steps to improve his posture, including buying a stand-up desk.

Now, instead of spending his long workdays reading and writing briefs, taking phone calls and participating in long conference calls while sitting bellied up to his desk in a chair, Lichtman is standing all day doing his work in comfortable shoes.

“I’m trying to be mindful about my body,” said Lichtman, 59. “It helps my posture. I’m glad I did it.”

While people have been working standing since the days of devotee Leonardo Da Vinci, standing desks are a relatively recent phenomenon in the modern-day workplace, gaining popularity only in the last few years. Now, increasing numbers of medical studies are finding that sitting for prolonged periods of times — 51/2 hours or more — leads to a variety of health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart conditions, back pain, even cancer. Doctors have even dubbed the condition “sitting disease,” while others dub it “work potato,” a play on the couch potato phrase.

“Research has shown that by standing or changing position throughout the day and adding that activity in your day, that it counters the negative or deleterious effects of sitting,” said Dr. Ronald Tolchin, a physiatrist at Baptist Center for Spine Care in Miami. “People have the misconception they can sit all day and then go work out and be fine, but research has shown that is not the case and by interjecting periods of standing, pacing, getting up from the desk is really the way to go.”

Doctors don’t necessarily recommend standing for 100 percent of the work day, but rather moving, shifting, walking, and even, for short periods of time, sitting. That’s because standing nonstop can lead to other medical problems—knee and joint pain, for one. They also caution to use either a gel mat under their feet or wear comfortable shoes.

Standing and moving throughout the workday can burn somewhere between 300 and 500 calories a day, experts say, as well as improve the posture, eliminate back pain and even prolong life span. The only patients Tolchin does not recommend use standing desks are older patients with major arthritic changes to knees, hips or ankles.

Responding to the demand, more and more companies such as Relax the Back are selling standing desks, which range in price from $150 to $1,600 for the top-of-the-line model. Some models are basic, fitting to the existing desks with the ability to be raised or lowered, while others come equipped with treadmills or bikes (for some athletes forced to take sedentary jobs, it appears standing alone is not enough — they want to actually get aerobic exercise while taking calls, writing emails and leading conference calls).

Lawyer Marla Neufeld is another standing desk devotee. The 32-year-old lawyer and mother of infant twins got her standing desk a year ago, after seeing one in the SkyMall magazine on a flight. “I thought it was a joke at first,” said Neufeld, who works at Greenspoon Marder in Fort Lauderdale.

Neufeld started researching standing desks and discovered they first became popular in California and that Leonardo Da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Winston Churcill and Vladimir Nabokov were among the early users. “I’m not painting the Mona Lisa, but maybe it will inspire creative legal work,” Neufeld cracked.

She found an adjustable desk on Amazon and ponied up the $300 to $400 out of her own pocket, unsure if she would like it. She’s been using it ever since. Unlike Lichtman, Neufeld does the stand-up thing half the day, keeping comfortable shoes under her desk to wear. She says people walking by her all-glass office often stop dead in their tracks while watching her standing and working.

Neufeld said she underwent a transitional period before becoming comfortable with the standing desk — something most newcomers to the desk complain about.

“I had to learn to shift my weight a lot,” she said. “It was kind of hard to stand up at first. I learned I can’t stand in heels. I found it’s not good to do either — sitting or standing — too long.”

Lichtman, too, found the experience took some getting used to.

“I was tired at first, and my legs were stiff,” he said, adding, “but it wasn’t a long adjustment.”

Since she adopted the standing desk, Neufeld has persuaded both her father, fellow attorney Barry Somerstein, and husband, personal injury lawyer Jason Neufeld, to make the switch.

She revels in the improvements to her health she has experienced ever since she got her new desk.

“My back hurts less and I have better circulation in my legs,” Neufeld said. “I definitely feel less lethargic during the day. I really do like it.”

John Shannon, an exercise physiologist at Memorial Healthcare Systems, is such a believer in the desks that he is one of a growing number of healthcare workers who use one in the form of a rolling desk they roll from patient to patient.

“A lot of major companies are starting to encourage it,” Shannon said. “Our body is meant to be standing. We adapted to be upright, after all.”

Shannon’s lower back pain has dissipated since he began using a rolling standing desk, he said.

But those whose companies don’t encourage or allow standing desks have other options to stay active while at work, he notes, such as taking the stairs, standing up every 30 minutes, trying to get and up walk every couple hours. And here’s some ammunition one can take to their employers to push for a stand-up desk: standing increases the blood flow not only to the legs but to the brain, he says, leading to higher energy level and productivity.

Juan Ortega, Palm Beach County editor for the Sun-Sentinel, found Shannon’s assessment rang true. He started using a standing desk in mid-2013 after starting to experience back pain at age 34. He fashioned a $25 do-it-yourself version he bought at IKEA and just showed up at work with it one day. Since, then he has been standing at work nearly all the time, sitting just to read an article or talk on the phone.

“It took about two weeks to get used to it,” Ortega said. “At first, my legs were sore. Now, I feel more energetic and more alert. I think I’m going to stick to it forever.”

See who has used a stand-up desk

Leonardo Da Vinci

Ernest Hemingway

Virginia Woolf

Thomas Wolfe

Vladimir Nabokov

Thomas Jefferson

Donald Rumsfeld

Charles Dickens

Michael Dell

Benjamin Franklin