Devices for turning your desk into a standing workstation are popular right now; I have one myself and it is so good to have the variation. But here is something you should know about standing work stations: your body might not be strong enough to stand and work all day. People who have to stand for work know what I’m talking about. About 7 years ago I got a job in a coffee shop and it was the most physically taxing thing I’ve done. It was much more demanding than teaching dance aerobics classes. That summer I had pain just about everywhere, but especially in my feet and calves.
Prolonged standing in a relatively small range of motion can give you pain in the knees, hips, lower back, shoulders and neck. Look at it another way: if you’ve trained your body to sit for a long time, starting from a young age, your body adapts to that position. If you don’t agree just consider that graduating from high school trains you to sit relatively still for 12-13 years. If you want to increase your range of motion, you will need to undo some of that adaptation without ‘challenging’ your adaption, which is what can happen when you try to work at a standing desk completely (or suddenly start working in a coffee shop) before your body is ready. In other words, to be able to use a standing workstation without pain, you need to train your body for it.
How to Become a Stand-to-Work Pro
Like with any other training, your gear is important. To become a standing-to-work winner critically examine what you are wearing on your feet. Consider these 3 points in your shoe choices: heel height, toe box, and flexibility.
# 1 Heel height ‘zero-rise’.
Ideally, zero rise (totally flat) shoes, but if you are used to wearing a heel and have heard about the benefits of going flat, it is better to transition into them gradually. Going to a totally flat shoe while moving to a standing workstation may be too drastic a move (but you can alternate between what you usually wear and a lower heel.)
# 2. A roomy toe box with no toe spring.
Ideally your shoe should have a toe box that is wide enough for you to spread your toes sideways and wiggle them up and down. You also want to look at how much toe spring the shoe has, because that can keep your toes flexed upwards. Both a narrow toe box and toe spring in your shoe may even be a cause of plantar faciitis. You will never see a toe spring in a pair of flip flops but you see them on some ballet flats. Does your shoe look like a banana? It has toe spring.
# 3 Flexible Sole.
Most shoes really act like a cast to keep your foot from moving around in your shoe but there are about a hundred muscles in your feet that do not get to move at all if your shoes are so rigid that they prevent natural movement. Do the flexibility test: can you twist your shoe from side to side? Can you bend your shoe at the ball of the foot?
Again, I want to stress that going directly to a ‘barefoot shoe’ may be too much, too soon. You may need more padding under your foot. I don’t own a pair of Lems shoes but I have heard they are very good for transitioning to a minimal shoe. You could also consider using an anti-fatigue mat under your workstation.
# 4. If you currently wear an orthotic device continue to use it as you adapt.
# 5. Don’t just stand there, at your standing workstation. Move around a bit, unlock your knees, stretch your calves, unclench and untuck. I keep a tennis ball close by and I roll it under my foot and use it to stretch my calves.
# 6. Finally, start out by standing for short periods of time, working up to 60 minutes of an 8 hour day. Gradually transition to longer periods of time standing.
Muscle lengthening and strengthening Exercises
You will probably need to undo your adaptation habits in order to stand to work (for longer periods) without pain. One result of sitting for long periods (either in a long session, or over your lifetime) is that the muscles on the back of the legs get shorter which requires the body to compensate in particular ways such as flattening the lumbar curve and tucking the tailbone.
Here are two Alignment Snacks from Nutritious Movement to take you through this series: Stretching the Standing Muscles and Walk This Way, Stand This Way. They can be purchased by clicking on the links below.
Focus on stretching the standing muscles first. Props you need for this exercise series which targets the gastrocnemius, soleus and hamstrings, are a rolled up towel or yoga mat, a dome or even a book.
Your lateral hip muscles need strengthening (they are weak for most people.) In this series you will learn more about balance and strengthening your lateral hip muscles. You will also need a rolled up towel or yoga mat, dome or book for these exercises.