How to Work at a Computer without Destroying your Body

ikea_bekant_standup-desk [Photo: Jordan Fried]

Standup desks are all the rage right now, and for good reason: we’re finally realizing that sitting all day is one of the worst things you can do for your health.

If you’ve somehow missed the trend, here’s some background:

Human performance guru Kelly Starrett has gone so far as to write a book on the topic. He’s mentioned the single biggest thing we could do for public health is to eliminate sitting from schools by replacing school desks with stand-up tables.

And even during the short conversation we had in January at San Francisco CrossFit he threw in the suggestion: “dude, you have to stop sitting.” (more: How I broke my body and then fixed it.)

Luckily I already did. I stopped sitting while working back in 2012 and my personal experience is that this is one of the best 20/80 solutions to keeping your body healthy.

How to set up a standing desk in 30s

A few important things to consider about sitting all day:

1. It Destroys Hip Function, your shoulders, and the position of your spine.

Ever stand up and feel incredibly tight on the top of your thighs and/or hips? That’s what happens when your hip flexors have to hold your upper body in a sitting position all day long.

Imagine holding a cup of coffee at chest height. Assuming you could maintain the pose for 8 hours (or more) you’d expect your biceps to be very unhappy about it. Sitting does the same thing to the muscles that move your hips. Each day as your hip flexors get shorter and tighter, your ability to move as a human being starts to suffer.

Hunching over the keyboard also puts your shoulders into a position they aren’t made to move in. It cements your thoracic and cervical spine into a chest and head forward position that causes all sorts of problems. And for athletes: the amount of work required to fix hip and shoulder dysfunction caused by sitting means you should get out while you still can.

But don’t take my word for it: here’s a more technical explanation of how sitting sets you up for failure when you do start to move:

2. Both your mind and body shut off when you’re sitting.

Ever taken a really important phone call while sitting down? Most of us get up and pace. That’s because standing and moving are critically important to brain function.

And then there’s the basics caloric expenditure of standing all day: over a year it’s the equivalent of running 10-30 extra marathons that sitting won’t get you.

3. Standing desks are not a fad.

Truly, this isn’t marketing, it’s a better way to work.

How to set up a Proper Standing Desk

Since it’s relatively impossible to “sit properly” and ergonomics is yet another way to sell sh*t to white people, it’s time to switch to a standing desk.

Rule #1: You don’t need to spend $700 on an electronic stand-up desk.

While I’m really happy that Ikea now offers a $489 electronically-adjustable standup desk (check out the one at the top of the post), you can also make one from Ikea components for $22, or even less.

Here’s my standup desk in Budapest:


Here’s a standup desk from last summer in Mallorca:


And here’s a mobile office last year in Chiang Mai:


And here’s one of my all-time favorite stand-up desks in Hawaii:


What do these all have in common? They cost nothing (or very little) and used available materials.

If you have the resources I’d be all for a trip to the hardware store. Buy some lumber, nails, and a hammer and make it happen.

Rule #2: You have to separate the screen from the keyboard.

This is an unfortunate truth for us laptop nomads, but it’s the only way to get into the correct positioning.

Fortunately it’s easy to grab a nice big monitor, keyboard, and external mouse for less than $120 at a local electronics store.

Or you can carry a portable mouse and vga/hdmi adapter to use for hotels/apartments that hook you up with a big screen TV (although not as nice to work on for long periods).

Rule #3: Adjust screen height for neutral head, keyboard for neutral shoulders.

Before you move on it’s important to know how to stand (for the yogi’s out there, Mountain Pose is a good place to start).

  • Stand with your feet hips widget apart and pointing straight ahead.
  • Squeeze your butt.
  • Contract your abs to pull your rib cage down.
  • Bring you shoulders up to your ears, then pull them back, then drop them down.
  • Put your hands in front of you with your elbows at a 45-degree angle.


Now line up screen height so that you can see the screen without looking down (or up). Put your keyboard in a position where your shoulders maintain the position you’re in (eg you aren’t reaching forward).

A caveat: some of the standup desks above show my laptop on a chair at head height. I think of the two, head position is more critical than shoulder position, but this isn’t perfect

Rule #4: Get a short-stool for one foot.

This is the Captain Morgan’s pose (credit: Kelly Starrett TM, video above). Put one leg on a stool. Makes drinking and working while standing up a lot more doable.

Rule #5: Pay attention when this starts to get comfortable.

You’ll probably notice some immediate changes from standing all day. Personally, being forced to sit now feels terrible, and I’m totally comfortable working all day while standing up.

However, I have to watch out for a) leaning to one side or the other b) leaning forward or putting my elbow on the desk and c) overextending my back because it takes less effort. My suggestion here is to take a break every hour or so and recheck your position when you come back.

Frequently Asked Questions about Working at a Standup Desk

What happens if my feet hurt?

If you’re on a hard floor put some padding underneath your feet. Otherwise as your feet get stronger they won’t hurt anymore. You can cycle periods of sitting and standing at first.

What if I work at an office with a desk?

If you’re lucky enough to live in Denmark, employers are required by law to provide a standup desk if you ask for it. If you’re employer isn’t willing to at least let you set up your own, you should probably get out of there.

The last video above has some tips and how to deal with sitting if you’re forced to.

What if I’m a traveler?

Go with the chair option and get your laptop as close to eye level as you can.

If you’ve hacked together your own standup desk take a picture and I’ll post it here.

How do I fix my body if I’ve been sitting my whole life?

Start here: How I broke my body and then fixed it.

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