Ergonomics of a Standing Desk

What are the ergonomics of a standing desk? What types of height adjustable desks are available and how should you use them?

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Height adjustable desks, both manual and electric, are available throughout South Africa, but what are the ergonomics of standing desks? Should you alternate between sitting and standing at work? It is well known that remaining in one position, whether sitting or standing for long periods at a time will have negative effects on your overall health. 10 Things That Happen When You Sit Down All Day. 

1. What are the negative effects of prolonged sitting and standing?

Changing from sitting to standing will not necessarily combat the negative effects of sitting statically all day. In the same way, standing all day at work is also unhealthy. Everyone knows sitting all day at the office is bad for you, but standing might not be much better - Business Insider, Australia.

Negative effects of sitting

  • Fatigue, which promotes a bad sitting posture.
  • Poor blood circulation.
  • Often results in skeletal and muscular disorders like misalignment of the spine, muscle tension in the neck, back and shoulders.
  • Poor concentration.

Negative effects of standing

  • Causes lower limb fatigue.
  • Cramping and swelling of the legs.
  • Lower back pain.
  • Increased pressure on your knees, hips and feet.
  • Varicose veins and/or inflammation of veins.
  • Misalignment of the spine due to shifting weight onto one leg.
  • Poor concentration.

2. What are the advantages of alternating between sitting and standing?

    • Intervertebral discs are kept in a better shape.
    • Better alignment of the spine.
    • Continually changing position reduces the strain in the lower back.
    • Reduction of varicose veins.
    • Improved concentration.
    • Increased muscle activity and blood circulation.
    • Higher energy consumption (calories) as you alternate from sitting down to standing up, and vice versa.

3. What is the correct ergonomic posture for sitting and standing at a desk?

    • Irrespective of whether you are sitting or standing at your desk, your desk surface should always be at elbow height and for improved ergonomics, your elbows should be bent in a relaxed position at approximately 900.
    • When sitting your feet should be flat on the ground. Your knees should be slightly below the level of your hips.
    • When standing, one leg should be elevated. Rest the elevated leg on a footrest and frequently alternate legs to shift your body weight.
    • Adjust you monitor directly in front of you and at eye level height.
    • Ensure that your shoulders are relaxed.
    • Make sure your wrists are in a neutral position.
    • Use an ergonomic office chair when you sit.
    • Use an anti-fatigue mat when you are standing.
    • What is the correct height for my desk, computer monitor and office chair?

4. Exercise and Movement

Due to the disadvantages of prolonged sitting and standing, adding simple office stretches and exercises to your day can reduce stress, increase energy, and improve your overall mood and creativity. To reduce the health risks of sitting, it is important to keep your body and mind healthy by taking time to move and exercise. This becomes even more important for anyone working remotely as health and ergonomics often take a "back seat". Remote Work – Pros and Cons.

Case Study: Lower back pain, workplace ergonomics and the role of a standing desk

"I am Ronel Hendry, a trained Office Ergonomic Risk Facilitator at Karo and understand the importance of ergonomics in the workplace. I have done extensive online research on sitting versus standing at work and was quite surprised by the varied perspectives from bloggers and ergonomics experts, especially as far as the use of a standing desk is concerned. Some maintain that standing at work is the “NEW BEST THING”, while for others it is a big “NO-NO”. These varied perspectives prompted me to share my own personal experience. 

In June 2020, I suffered from a pinched nerve in my lower back, causing me intense agony for a period of three months. The excruciating pain radiated from my lower vertebrae and spread into my hips, back, buttocks, and legs. It reached a point where I couldn't endure sitting still for more than 30 minutes without needing to shift. Luckily, during this challenging time, I was testing an ergonomic electric height-adjustable standing desk at my workplace. The desk's programable memory function became my lifeline, enabling me to effortlessly switch between sitting and standing positions with a simple touch of a button.

To alleviate my pain, I started incorporating more standing into my work routine and increased my overall daily movement. Without a fixed pattern, I constantly alternated between sitting and standing and took short walks whenever I felt any discomfort in my body.

Although I had received advice to perform specific exercises to stabilise my spine, the severe pain and discomfort made it impossible for me to follow through with them. Recognising the importance of movement in the healing process, I began taking walks to visit colleagues in another building and then returned to my office. This daily routine of alternating between sitting, standing, and walking significantly reduced my pain levels and facilitated my full recovery. To this day, I continue to follow the same daily regimen, and I have also incorporated a set of straightforward exercises for office workers to enhance my overall wellbeing."

For the greatest overall benefit, I believe that a balanced approach is needed where you combine sitting, standing and movement at work. 

5. What types of height adjustable standing desks are available in South Africa?

There are 3 basic types of standing desks available:

Standing or Sit-Stand Desk Converter

Manual Height Adjustable Desks

Electric Height Adjustable Desks

a. Standing or Sit-Stand Desk Converters

Standing desk converters are placed on top of your existing fixed height desk. They are designed to convert a normal desk into a sit-stand desk. They can be adjusted up and down to ensure the monitor, keyboard and mouse are at your ideal standing height.

KM003 Sit/Stand height adjustable Workstation Desk
Sit-Stand Desk Converter

Pros and Cons of standing desk converters

    • They are mobile and can easily be moved between your home and work office.
    • Inexpensive. They are the most affordable option.
    • They have a small working surface area, particularly when standing.
    • Many standing desk converters tend to be "wobbly", which is not ideal from an ergonomics perspective.

There are 2 basic options available:

    • Pneumatic or gas-assisted – The upwards height adjustment is aided by a pneumatic lift function and no manual lifting is required. However, some effort is required when lowering the standing desk converter.
    • Non-electric counterbalance option – A counterbalance weight makes it easier to change the height of the converter.

b. Manual height adjustable standing desks

There are 2 basic options when it comes to manual height adjustable desks. The first uses a simple crank, and the second, a pneumatic lifter to raise and lower the desk.

ergonomic height adjustable standing desk south africa
Crank operated height adjustable standing desk

i) Crank operated standing desk

    • The crank handle requires greater effort to raise and lower the desk.
    • Slower to adjust.
    • There is a risk that it will be adjusted less frequently. Poorer ergonomics will often result due to the time and effort involved in changing the height of the standing desk.
    • More affordable than gas assisted and motorised options.

ii) Pneumatic lift standing desk

    • Pneumatic height adjustment is similar to your office chair.
    • Easier to adjust than those desks with a crank handle.
    • No manual lifting is required due to the pneumatic powered mechanism. However, more effort is necessary to lower the desk as your body weight is required to press down on the desk.
    • More affordable than electric desks.
ergonomic height adjustable standing desk south africa
Pneumatic lift standing desk

c. Electric standing or height adjustable desks

These ergonomic height adjustable standing desks are freely available in South Africa. The electronic control system enables you to change the desk height within seconds at the simple touch of a button.

electric standing desk control system south africa
HiLo Electric height adjustable standing desk

Pros and Cons of Electric standing desks

    • Typically you can store pre-set heights so one or more people can save their settings for both sitting and standing. For example, ladies that alternate between heels and flat shoes, or operators that take up semi sit/stand positions where sit/stand stools are being used.
    • Certain models can be operated via an App on a phone or tablet.
    • Some models have electric motors in each leg and can accommodate heavier loads. Their operation is generally smooth and quiet.
    • Convenient and easy to operate.
    • Electric models like the HiLo Height Adjustable Standing Desk are more expensive but from an ergonomics and ease of adjustability perspective, provide a superior solution.

6. Factors to consider when using a standing desk

If you are considering buying a standing desk in South Africa, be sure that you keep the following ergonomic factors in mind:

    • Use a padded anti-fatigue mat when standing as it reduces strain in your legs. Some types are contoured to encourage movement.
    • Shift positions frequently and move around to avoid fatigue.
    • Use a footrest. Stand on one leg and rest your other leg on a footrest. Alternate legs regularly.
    • If your work allows, listen to music while standing as the body will naturally move to the rhythm of the music.

7. Conclusion

Based on my personal experience, to improve your overall physical and mental wellbeing, change your working position often (sitting to standing and back again), and include frequent movement in your daily work routine. 

Invest in an ergonomic height adjustable standing desk but do your homework as there are many types available in South Africa. In my opinion, an electric height adjustable desk is definitely the answer! These desks enable you to quickly, easily and frequently change from a sitting to a standing position during your working day. This, together with regular movement, will ensure you to achieve the greatest benefit to your health and wellbeing.

Because of the effort involved in adjusting a manual standing desk, it is unlikely that you will adjust it as often, and so the overall ergonomic benefit will be less. This is particularly the case with crank handle height adjustable desks.

If you have any medical condition that may not be conducive to standing or exercises, then seek the advice of your health professional.

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