In a previous professional life, I was a help desk guy and then a systems administrator. With minor exceptions, that means I’ve had a desk job for the last sixteen years. I’ve probably spent six hours or more in a chair almost every day since 1996.
Well, it turns out that the body isn’t really made for sitting in a chair all day long, and my body has increasingly made it clear to me that I’m not treating it with the care it needs to get me through the next twenty or thirty years without regular applications of anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone injections. If pain is nature’s way of saying “You’re Doing It Wrong”, then I’m doing it Very Wrong, Indeed. I’ve had recurring sciatica episodes since at least 1999, but they’ve increased in severity, so when the last (thankfully brief) episode tapered off last week, I figured it was high time to take firm measures, lest I find myself walking on a crutch by the time I hit 50. I can’t change what I do–writing and wrangling kids around the house–but I am certainly able to change the way I’m doing it.
At the follow-up visit with my doctor last week, I requested a referral to a Physical Therapist, discussed a bunch of options, and had her show me exercises and such. Then I went to modify my work space arrangement, to keep myself from sitting at a desk most of the day and relapsing back into the same issues every ten or twelve months.
I’ve tried the standing desk setup for a day, but took it down again because my feet were getting too tired–and, truth be told, because we do what’s comfortable and familiar, and go back to the old ways as soon as we have an excuse. This time, I wanted to make sure that cheating would be more difficult. They make lovely hydraulic desks that change from sitting to standing height at the press of a button, but knowing myself, I’d use it as a sitting desk 90% of the time if adjusting it is as easy as flicking a switch. So I moved the sitting chair out of the room altogether, put a cheap coffee table from the WalMarts on top of my regular desk, and put a bar stool in front of it, to have a place to perch my derriere when my feet start aching. I used a monitor riser to boost the screen to eye level, and a footstool underneath the desk to change leg positions as needed.
It’s not pretty, but it works for now:
Eventually, I want to get a dedicated, purpose-built standing desk that doesn’t look cobbled together, but until I fully get used to the arrangement, the coffee table trick will have to do.
I spent all day working in front of the standing desk yesterday, including the customary evening World of Warcraft session with the wife. When everyone went to bed, I kept on working some more. The key to the new setup is the little bar stool–it gives me a place to sit down for a moment to take the load off my feet occasionally, but it doesn’t invite slumping onto it and just vegging in front of the monitor. After thirty seconds or so on the stool, I find that I actually want to get up and move again.
So far, I’ve identified two major differences in the standing desk’s favor. One is the ability to move around in front of the desk. You shift the weight on your legs, you can take an easy step back from the desk, you can walk away easily altogether and pace as you think something through–the standing desk feels a lot more liberating from a movement perspective. The second difference is more of a mindset thing. When I sit down in a regular chair, there’s a certain inertia that makes me want to stay there, and getting out of the chair is a bit of a hassle. Also, sitting and looking at the screen is passive to the point of trance sometimes, to the point where you end up sitting and clicking on stuff just because you’re sitting down. With the standing desk, there’s no effort involved in stepping away from the screen, so you do it more often and with less inertia.
I’m going to give this setup a week or two and see how it goes. I’m on Day Two now, and the feet are like “WTF?” on occasion, but my back is holding up fine. I’m definitely moving around much more, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just sitting down to get sucked into the Intertubes for hours. If my body finds that it prefers the standing desk, I’ll look at buying a permanent solution that doesn’t look like, well, a WalMart coffee table on an old desk. Stay tuned for more exciting tales from the ergonomics front…