When I decided to write about using a standing desk, I expected to join the ranks of exhilarated converts. I’m not tall, don’t weigh much, and have never had back trouble, so I figured I was a prime candidate. But it’s the fourth day of the experiment, and my computer screen is angled down, and my neck is craned up, like a fourth grader.
I am sitting at my standing desk.
Using a standing desk seemed like a great idea a few weeks ago, when I took a tour of the Internet startup Stack Exchange, where islands of tall desks make it look like the office was preparing for a storm surge. “I love it,” said one community manager who was loitering after hours at one of the spindly worksurfaces. He looked so relaxed there, leaning on one elbow, his legs crossed jauntily at the ankle, smiling like a life-size Wellbutrin commercial. “I can never work at a normal company after this.”
Ten percent of the employees at Facebook and AOL reportedly use a standing desk; Google offers them under its “wellness program.” San Francisco startup Asana, which actually means “sitting down” in Sanskrit, gives new employees $10,000 to customize their workstations. In 1999 the ultimate symbol of employee appreciation was the $900 Herman Miller Aeron chair; now it’s the $1,500 Steelcase Airtouch Height-Adjustable Desk by Details, which has an electric motor in the base.
The current Internet boom is fueled not only by recent news reports on the health hazards incurred by simply sitting on one’s ass but by a pathological need to optimize. Book a doctor’s appointment from your iPhone. Connect your Google and Facebook to get personalized recommendations. Rent out that extra bedroom on Airbnb, the extra car on Getaround, and the extra parking space on ParkatmyHouse. Recently, two dueling startups launched in Manhattan for scheduling laundry pickup and delivery online.
The standing desk mashes up two of our current compulsions—exercising and working—which makes it perhaps the ultimate emblem of our efficiency-crazed moment.
John Durant eats raw foods and lean meats as a follower of the Paleo Diet, and owns a lifestyle brand themed around mimicking ancient human behavior in modern times. He tried to build a standing desk in 2006, using a milk crate and a variety of objects he found around the Midtown management consulting office where he worked as an associate. The contraption lasted for two days. Standing at work felt awkward, and, judging by the sideways glances of his colleagues, it looked equally odd. “Coworkers think it’s goofy and they tease you about it,” he explained. “It makes them feel like they’re lazy. It’s like being the one person at the office birthday who turns down a piece of cake. ‘Just eat the cake!’” He sat back down for four years.
Now well into a full-time career as a Manhattan caveman, Mr. Durant is pounding out his book, tentatively titled Live Wild, on a laptop perched on a small coffee table atop his dining room table. “I now take phone calls standing up,” he told me over the phone. “Right now I’m outside pacing around.”
I was also standing up, having constructed a standing desk out of a file box, an Amazon box, a stack of books and a binder of dry-erase markers. As I type, the keyboard is a bit precarious though the computer is at the ideal height and a hardback copy of The Masters of Private Equity and Venture Capital makes for a workable mouse platform. The pain in my arches is becoming distracting.
I asked Mr. Durant if it would be permissible to sit down periodically. “As long as you’re moving in the right direction of spending more time on your feet,” he said. “It’s going to be hard at least for a little bit, and there is a little period where you might just want to tough it out.”
The standing trend was given a boost by the emerging field of “inactivity research,” which has produced results that show prolonged idleness exacerbates heart disease, diabetes and obesity, spawning a meme, “sitting kills,” and a spate of articles about the popularity of standing desks accompanied by pictures of erect office workers. Somehow, this campaign worked. Standing desks promised to eliminate the 3 p.m. slump, knock a few pounds off the scale, and add a few years to the end of one’s life. Converts say they drink less coffee and get better sleep. Healthwise, quitting sitting has been compared to quitting smoking.
Like many standing-desk converts, Mr. Durant became a zealous advocate. A series on his blog, entitled “Upstanding Citizen,” has honored celebrity standing-desk users James Murdoch, Dwight Shrute on The Office and Donald Rumsfeld. “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” the former secretary of defense once scrawled on a memo about interrogation techniques at Guantanamo.
If you go by the volume of Google searches, the standing desk started to take off in the early days of 2010 (resolution season!). Since then, the volume of queries for “standing desk” or “stand up desk,” as it’s often searched, has quintupled. David Kahl is the owner of Ergo Depot, a Portland, Ore.-based provider of ergonomic office solutions that has sent standing desks to Nike, MTV, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, Accenture and Harvard, among others. The company’s relatively new adjustable-height desks are now the “centerpiece” of its offerings, Mr. Kahl said, with sales up 40 percent over last year. “We’ve actually been somewhat blown away by how fast they’re becoming accepted in the marketplace,” he said. “It’s getting really popular. We’re seeing the product accepted by law firms, CPA firms. We even have some that are for super tall people.”
Drew Magary, a writer for Deadspin, switched to a low-tech standing desk on doctor’s orders after multiple back surgeries. He puts his laptop on a chair and puts the chair on a table with his screen at eye level. He was tired and sore after the first few days, he said, but he’s adjusted. “I feel pretty good at the end of the day,” he said. “I don’t just stand there for eight straight hours—every 20 minutes, I just sort of walk from the end of room and back.” As for feeling more alert, “I think that’s bullshit. That’s just people believing what they want to believe.” He works at home, so he’s spared the acerbic mockery of his colleagues at Gawker Media.
Convinced that the potential upside of passive exercise was too great to ignore, I set up my standing desk on a Wednesday afternoon, straightened my knees and began taking notes:
2 p.m. The coworker to my left starts giggling and snaps a photo on her iPhone. “Are you going to be doing this for a long time? I can’t look at you!” Another colleague walks by and sniggers. “Wow! Participatory journalism!” I am getting a lot of visits. I feel as though I’m being watched. Can people read my screen?
2:49 p.m. Realizing my headphones no longer reach my ears, I repose to watch a video.
3:15 p.m. Eating a slice of pizza while standing. Am accused of “cheating” because I am leaning against the desk with one foot on the chair.
3:22 p.m. Lower back is starting to hurt.
3:31 p.m. A colleague stops by, corrects my posture and tells me to get rid of the sweatshirt I’m using to cushion my heels.
3:53 p.m. Back pain.
4:28 p.m. Back pain.
4:47 p.m. Awkwardly stretching.
5:05 p.m. I sit. It feels good. My computer and keyboard are at an awkward angle but I think my posture is slightly better. I crack my back a bunch. Adjacent coworker laughs.
5:40 p.m. Back on my feet. Colleague: “I’m going to laugh at you now. Ha. Ha. Ha.” He points to my hand on the chair. “Cheating!”
6:03 p.m. Everyone loves me now that I have a standing desk. Colleague: “So how does this work?” I explain the benefits. He’s interested in trying it.
6:18 p.m. Stretching, squirming.
6:32 p.m. Sitting.
6:38 p.m. I leave work earlier than usual, desperate to escape the standing desk. A shooting pain in my left hip prevents me from running to catch the downtown A/C/E. I find relief sitting on the next train. Did I mention I’m 25? At bedtime, I fall asleep immediately and dream I am a hunter-gatherer.
“The average CEO or office worker, they get up out of bed, they sit down at the breakfast table, they get in their car, they sit in their car or subway or what have you, they go to work, they sit down at work all day, then they get back in their car and sit down, they drive home, they sit down for dinner, they sit down in front of the TV, maybe they do a little exercise and then they lay down and go to bed,” Jim Gattuso, CEO of Amish Country Furniture Sales in Ohio and owner of standupdesks.com, told me the next day. I had mounted my phone on top of a scanner. “I mean, it’s a lot of sit-down or reclined position. That isn’t good for you.”
It did sound like a lot of sitting. Still, on day two, I find myself thinking of the prisoners at Guantanamo. I make up excuses to walk around the office and am struck by terrible hiccups.
Only a handful of Mr. Gattuso’s customers have returned one of his desks since he started selling them in 1994. He’s sent 18 desks at once to a law firm, he said, but usually he gets serial orders: once the first person in the office gets a standing desk, at least a couple others are sure to follow. Amish Country Furniture Sales, which makes classic-looking, wooden office furniture, has sent standing desks to almost every government agency in D.C. and has at least three desks in the White House. “Once you get used to it, people just swear by it,” he assured me.
On day three, I make it an hour and 40 minutes before sitting down, which feels like progress. A sedentary holiday weekend follows—hey, cousin Victoria just got a standing desk and a kneeling chair—and by noon on Monday, my vertebrae are feeling crushed again. One television finance reporter who works five hours a day standing at a desk directed me to the Cole Haan Nike Airs she and her anchor swear by, but I was starting to think a kneeling chair might be more my style. Or a real chair, with armrests, wheels and a soft mesh back.
A version of this article was published in the New York Observer the week of April 11, 2012.