Standing desks sit well with employees looking to banish pain, drop pounds

Posted May 22, 2014, at 10:40 a.m.
Two-thirds of the employees at Opower, an energy efficiency company in Arlington, Va., use standing desks.
Dayna Smith | The Washington Post
Two-thirds of the employees at Opower, an energy efficiency company in Arlington, Va., use standing desks.

Except for the tattoo peeking out from under his rolled-up right sleeve, Scott Eichinger doesn’t look like much of a revolutionary. But two years ago, in his cramped corner cubicle, the bearded and bespectacled Eichinger took a stand.

Then he placed a pair of $8 Ikea end tables on top of his desk, elevated his computer monitor and went back to work.

“As people came in here, they’d notice and say, ‘Hey, you’re standing up,’” says Eichinger, now 38, the manager of individual donor relations at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. When his co-workers peppered him with questions about the setup he’d found online, Eichinger couldn’t help but gush — his headaches were gone, his back pain had vanished, his energy level was through the roof.

So Renee Sicchitano, who works down the hall, decided she’d try standing, too, using the same Ikea solution: “I just copied off of Scott.” Two weeks later, her nagging leg cramps were a thing of the past, and anyone who walked by could see her literally jump for joy. (One side effect of a standing desk and listening to music is that you might start to dance, Sicchitano warns.)

Flash-forward to today, and 11 people — or 25 percent of the center’s staff — have made the switch.

The story is being repeated at offices across the country. It always starts with “a lone soldier,” who inspires a platoon and, eventually, a whole army, says Jason McCann, president of Gemmy Industries, a Texas-based corporation that introduced its Varidesk in 2012.

Sales for the wide platform unit that rests on top of any desk and easily glides up to a raised position have been in the “tens of thousands,” according to McCann. The Varidesk can be spotted at the National Institutes of Health, the United Nations Secretariat, the Federal Reserve Bank and an endless list of corporations. Nearly every initial order, McCann says, has been a request for just one.

At the American Beverage Association, that one was for Chief Financial Officer Mark Hammond. The 55-year-old agreed to be a guinea pig for the idea last fall after hearing glowing reviews at a business lunch. (The CFO of the American Coatings Association bragged that a Varidesk helped him lose weight without changing his diet or exercise routine.)

Instead of immediately settling into a chair after his daily 75-minute drive to downtown Washington, Hammond got into the habit of standing to answer emails. Soon enough, he was standing for other tasks, and he, too, got that convert zeal. He recommended buying any employee who wants one the same $300 Varidesk.

That was six months ago, and already 24 out of 38 employees have jumped at the offer, Hammond says. And if the standing option improves their quality of life — and productivity — the way he says it has for him, that price is a bargain, he says.

Not all employers allow standing, and some require a doctor’s note for an employee to have permission. Even at offices that are open to the shift, employees are often expected to foot the bill for their standing solution (hence the popularity of the Ikea option at the Clarice Smith Center).

So the revolution is most apparent in places where employers have bought into the idea and are buying the standing desks, too.

Of the 310 employees based at the Arlington, Va., headquarters of the energy-efficiency company Opower, two-thirds have adjustable-height desks so they can stand on the job. “People start to see them, and they want them,” says office manager Steven Yates, who notes that the trend originated in the engineering department.

Yates has been so inundated with requests over the past year that Opower has decided any new desk it purchases will be adjustable. And, because standing has proved popular, he introduced two treadmill desks to the office last week. Those are standing desks with a treadmill underneath, so employees can walk while they work.

The early consensus from employees? “The right speed is 1.1 miles per hour,” Yates says.

Treadmill desks might be the next step at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, which opened last week. In the nine-story building, every faculty member’s desk is adjustable.

That’s partially due to the work of another revolutionary: Loretta DiPietro, chairman of the department of exercise science. Four years ago, as she and other researchers in the field began to recognize the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting, she rustled up a tall table to repurpose as her desk.

Even her public health colleagues were flabbergasted by the decision. But they couldn’t argue with the science, which showed that a vigorous daily workout can’t counteract all the bad stuff that happens to your body when you sit for too long.

“The best thing about a standing desk is that light moving around displaces sitting time,” says DiPietro, whose latest study showed that subjects who take a few short strolls throughout the day control their blood sugar better than those who take one longer, sustained walk.

Her strongest evidence for the benefits of standing desks, however, comes from her personal experiment. By cutting back on nearly 10 hours a day of sitting, she’s banished the shooting pains in her legs and lost weight.

Along with those 10,000 steps everyone is supposed to aim for on a daily basis, DiPietro would tack on three more hours of standing. “It doesn’t have to all be at once,” she adds.

But the option does have to be available, which is why when the new public health building was conceived, DiPietro “pestered and pestered” the GWU administration to make adjustable desks standard. (She estimates that 80 percent of employees — including those early skeptics — have already taken advantage of the up-down function.) Several classrooms also feature an elevated table in the back so students can stand during lectures.

All buildings should look like this, says DiPietro, who compares the standing movement to another public health campaign. “When I was growing up, no one wore a seat belt ever. Now, most people wouldn’t think about starting a car without one.”

Soon, she predicts, we’ll feel the same way about adjustable-height desks. No one will think about starting a job without one.

 

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