Friday, June 19, 2015

The Standing Desktop Experiment

The idea of using a standing desktop had been on my mind for a while. I think it started when I read Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run where he noted that even active people could suffer adverse effects from sitting too long. This got my attention as I had assumed that my active lifestyle would mitigate less healthy things I do – such as eating any snacks that showed up in the office breakroom. The various articles that I looked into seemed to confirm this: while exercise was good, it did not quite make up for sitting all day.

Initial Research

Some folk at work had adjustable standing desktops and so I asked our HR about getting one. Unfortunately, I was told that this well had dried up – well, sort of. My company would provide a standing workstation if I had a doctor’s note for back pain. I could not bring myself to do this route - I like to think that I am too honest, but it was mostly pride.

My dream set-up that I could not sell our HR on (for me)
[Photo from Ergo Desktops]
So I looked into getting my own. I quickly learned why our company only got standing desktops for thosse medical conditions – they are expensive. I wanted one that could switch from sitting to standing plus accommodate my laptop monitor and a second one.  Desktops that met these criteria started at $400. . . and quickly went up. I guess the craze is still mostly in the realm of hip millennials. I assume that if it ever becomes big enough for Wal Mart to become interested then we will be able to find them for prices closer to $100. While my health is certainly worth more than $400 I felt there must be a better way.

A baseline adjustable desk - with the monitors still a little low
[Photo from Amazon]
Fortunately, the same quick internet research also revealed that I could build one for much less. One popular (and much referenced) site claimed that one could be “hacked” for $22 worth of parts from Ikea. However, at this point I was deploying to Kuwait rather soon, so I shelved this plan and just took my turns at one of the common standing desks that our company was cool enough to get.

Once I got my room in Kuwait though, I was pleased to find that I could stack two of the desk cubes together and make a reasonable standing desk for the evenings. This was much better than using either of them as a desks anyways since the height was not right and would have just strained my back hunching over a nightstand desk. 

Useful re-purposing of Army provided furniture
According to the Mayo clinic’s guide the keyboard was a bit low (should be at elbow height) and the laptop monitor was therefore much too low (the top should be at eye level).

Proper proportions
[Photo credit: Mayo clinic]


So the next round in the experiment came about trying to make one for work. We had a self-help wood-working shop on camp, but I was once again stymied by bureaucracy. The woodshop did not have a lot of storage space (to put projects in between work sessions) so there was a blanket policy again building furniture. As the organization that oversaw the woodshop I probably could have bullied my way through, but it did not seem like the right battle.

Initial designs

Testing things out in Sketch-up

But then I found a desktop that someone abandoned when they went home. I measured the height and cut it to the right length to put the tops of the monitors at eye level. I have to admit that this at first seemed too high (especially compared to the set-up I was using in the room) but I eventually realized this was probably because my other setups were just promoting bad posture.

Good on the monitor height, but two stacks of water bottles was too much. And one stack was not enough.
The final step was to get the keyboards right. This was a bit trickier to fine tune. I was quite happy to discover though that some O’Douls cans and cheap paperbacks did the trick. It was worth the effort through to get the keyboard at the right height as this made typing a lot easier.

Everyone appreciated the awesomeness that the O'Douls added to this set-up

Verdict. . . so far

It took about two to three weeks for my legs to adapt to the standing desktop. They would be pretty tired at the end of many days. The problem with DIY solutions is that you are kinda all in. Going back and forth between sitting and standing is an annoying effort – especially with a second monitor. Part of my research found that some of the same people who sang the praises of standing desktops still recommended being able to sit sometimes during the day. In a rare silver lining for meetings, I found that they provided nice sitting breaks.

Some physical pluses were very obvious. At one point I went back to the normal sitting set-up for one day (I wanted to rest my legs before a half-marathon that I was going to do the next day). I found that I could definitely feel it in my back (making me realize why my civilian company would pony up for a standing desktop if you have back issues). I was also annoyed that my monitors did not have the ability to adjust to the ideal ergonomically ideal height that I had become accustomed to.

There were also subtler benefits. I found that it was easier to justify going over to talk to people when I did not have to overcome the comfort of sitting. It was also easier to stay alert after lunch (or at least easier to fight nodding off).

One ultra-runner that I follow claimed that his standing desktop had let him really bump up his weekly mileage without suffering his usual injuries. I did not significantly increase my mileage during this time though and I did not find amazing or immediate results in my running. I did however manage to shave four seconds off my 5k PR though, so the standing desk at least correlated with good running and did no harm.

I ended up using the standing desktop for three months in Kuwait. Overall, it was a success and I plan to try and implement some form of it when I am back at my civilian job. So far, it is an experiment worth continuing.

1 comment:

  1. Nice! I like your improvisation. I was using a bookshelf with the top removed for a while. Ultimately, my company gave in and got me one of the nice $350 ones. It is really nice to be able to sit/stand easily, but it does mean I sit more than I otherwise would. Good luck building your next one!