Standing desk, core exercises

Be forewarned, here comes another where-I’m-at-right-now post. I’m inclined to avoid this sort of writing. But then again, I’ve learned many helpful things from others who took the time and trouble to write down the details of their own experiences. So in case you are dealing with posture issues, or back pain, or low metabolism, read on!

Ever since my bout with rheumatoid arthritis (started in 1988, ended in 1999 or so) I’ve dealt with chronic low-level aches and pains—the arthritis is gone now, but it caused lasting joint damage during its stay. And so it’s often hard for me to tell whether particular pains are beyond remedy, or perhaps warning signs of other bad behaviors that could be corrected. But lately I’ve been paying more attention to my overall health, looking for places to make obvious small improvements, thinking about how to slow or stop various age-related downward slides, maybe even turn some around.

For a few months I’ve worried that sitting for long periods was becoming more uncomfortable for me. Which had me paying more notice to the latest fad claiming that “sitting is the new smoking”. And reading more closely whenever another item about standing desks showed up in my feed. One of those mentioned that standing desks were one way to increase one’s NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis—basically, one’s default rate of burning calories—and since I was already wondering why (and annoyed that) my sedentary-lifestyle NEAT was so low, I decided to give the standing desk a try.

I’ll leave aside the geekier details of standing desk options, since those are easy to find online. I opted for the $22 IKEA hack, perfect for an experiment—inexpensive, easy to assemble, easy to add to your current desk arrangement. And the good news, for those without a nearby IKEA store, is that the items can be ordered online for only $10 shipping. One thing not clear from the article, though, is that the legs of the side table are hollow, meaning there isn’t much wood for the screws to grab when you mount the shelf brackets. Someone else suggested bolts long enough to go entirely through the leg, secured with a nut and washer on the far side. This is what I did; it works well, and the hardware cost about $2 at Lowe’s.

Notes on setup:

  • I set the keyboard shelf so that when my forearms rest on it my elbows are at a 90 degree angle. My forearms are always touching the shelf, but the shelf edge does not cut into them at all.

  • I raised my monitor by stacking books underneath, about 2 inches worth. The top of my monitor is about even with my eyes. I try not to incline my head while looking at the monitor.

  • I use an anti-fatigue mat, which is essential for me. I was standing on it either barefoot or in sock feet, but my feet were getting cold! I picked up a cheap pair of sandals with thick soles, and now alternate between those and bare/sock feet.

  • In El Paso I use my laptop as my primary computer, with an external monitor. The laptop is sitting to my left side, on the desktop, with the screen tilted so I can see it while standing and use it as a second screen. There is a chair in front of it, so that I can sit down for a rest and still continue working. At home I will use two side tables for the two monitors connected to my desktop computer, and will probably have a separate desk where I can sit at the laptop to do work.

  • I bought a folding child’s stepstool, 9 inches tall, which lives in front of the anti-fatigue mat. I occasionally rest one or the other foot on it, as a way of shifting my position while standing.

You can imagine multiple physical issues will arise when making the transition from sitting to standing while doing deskwork. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience over the past ten years standing for long stretches, sometimes for three hours straight, while performing music with Chris. So I’m already able to spend significant time standing, and am confident that I will be able to make the adjustment.

The more interesting challenge is to “get into the zone” while standing. After 40 years or so I have a strong association between deep thinking and extended sitting, which needs to be broken. But being absorbed by the task while standing is not as difficult as I expected, and so I expect that practice will make up the difference. And luckily I’m at a point in my work where there are no large tasks requiring extended attention, just a laundry list of smaller ones that I can attend to as time and energy permit, with rests in between as needed. This entire post is being written at one go while standing, and this is the fifth day of the experiment. It took about an hour.

It’s no surprise that extended periods of standing made my lower back pain worse. So I started thinking about that. And when a friend mentioned that faithful engagement in “core exercises” had helped his own lower back pain quite a bit, I looked into that. These are definitely my kind of exercises, more a matter of stretching than working up a sweat. I began doing some of these in the morning: partial crunches, hamstring stretches, press-up back extensions, bird dog, knee to chest, pelvic tilts. The difference is remarkable. Where I used to spend 30-60 minutes in the morning babying myself to simply stand upright, the 20 minutes I spend on these leaves me feeling almost normal. The knee to chest exercise is particularly good for my pain, and when my back begins to ache during the day I spend a few minutes engaged in it and am refreshed.

All this together has me thinking about posture, something I’ve always neglected because it hasn’t much mattered—sitting is sitting. But now I’m looking into better ways to stand, and to walk. More on that if and when I find them.

5 thoughts on “Standing desk, core exercises

  1. This video was posted at The Common Room blog in the fall of 2008, right after I had injured my back yet again, so I was more than ready for help with my posture. I bought the book too, and it has helped quite a bit, but you might be able to get everything you need just from the video.

  2. Kelly,

    Thanks! I’d seen mentions of her method while searching for information, but your recommendation is a good reason for me to take a closer look.

  3. Kelly,

    Ah, Kelly, you’ve cost me time and money–both of which I gladly spent! I watched the above video, and most of another one, and I ordered her book. What she says makes a lot of sense to me. And I hope it helps!

  4. For those curious about Esther Gokhale but not so much as to watch a 60-minute video, this New York Times article is a good brief overview. One thing I like is that Gokhale falls low on the self-promoting scale, and there’s no enthusiasm or proselytizing.

    A second thing I like is that she is not anti-sitting, just pro-sitting-properly. If I had discovered her method earlier, I might have used her methods to stay seated rather than going with a standing desk (assuming her methods work). But at this point I’m as interested in extended standing for the extra calories burned as for the structural benefits. And there’s no incompatibility between her method and standing desks, she teaches proper sitting and standing and (especially) walking, all things that standing desk users do.

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