Become a Stand-Up Guy: The History, Benefits, and Use of Standing Desks

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In the past couple of years, as studies have come out sounding the alarm on the ill-effects of excessive sitting, the popularity of standing or stand-up desks has soared. Those who have read much of the coverage of this trend might be forgiven for thinking that standing to work constitutes a new hip fad.

But as it is with many things, everything old is new again. For the stand-up desk was cool long before the cats in Silicon Valley got hip to them. They’ve actually been a secret of great men for centuries. Today we’ll explore the standing desk’s place in history, discuss the benefits of using one, and outline how you can rediscover this old/new tradition.

The Standing Desk in History

Searching the historical record, and by historical record I mean Google Books, you’ll find mentions of the standing desk in a variety of places.

Old inventories of furniture from state legislatures and other government bodies during the 19th century often include an entry for stand-up desks. And in industrial journals you’ll find references like this one:

“Mr. W. H. Thompson, President of the gas company, with his hat off, stood near the centre of the room, behind a standing desk used by the weigher of the establishment. To his right Emerson McMillin, with his silk hat on, chewed at a cigar.”

School classrooms were sometimes outfitted with standing desks. In an 1899 book, School Hygiene, Dr. Ludwig Wilhelm Johannes Kotelmann described the rationale behind their use:

“It has in late years been repeatedly suggested that even with the proper kind of desk much sitting is liable to injure the abdominal organs and the circulation. Desks have accordingly been proposed which can be arranged for standing as well as sitting. These are hardly necessary for the lower and intermediate classes, since the pupils here rise when questioned, and tumble about vigorously on the play ground during recesses. They are rather to be thought of for the upper classes.”

The book showcases some of the designs for student desks that converted from sitting to standing:

In another instance of the everything old is new again phenomena, schools are once more experimenting with giving students adjustable height desks, which allow them to stand and work. Educators feel such desks help students focus more, since kids (and adults!) aren’t made to sit still all day.

The stand-up desk has also been the favorite workstation of many a great man from history.

Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most famous user of the stand-up desk. His six-legged “tall desk” had an adjustable slanted top that was large enough to place a folio. Jefferson used the desk to draw up brilliant architectural blueprints for buildings like the Virginia State Capitol.

Jefferson was not the only head of state to favor the standing desk. Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck would be standing at his desk by five in the morning, ready to sort through all the proposals and business of the day. When Winston Churchill was not lounging in bed, he liked to lay out the galley proofs of his next book on an upright desk and pore over them, looking for needed corrections.

Many authors felt like standing up to work got their creative juices flowing. Charles Dickens used one, as revealed by the description of his study by a visitor: “books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable easy chairs.”

Ernest Hemingway discovered the standing desk method from his editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Maxwell Perkins. In Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, AE Hotchner describes Hemingway’s set-up in his home in Havana:

“In Ernest’s room there was a large desk covered with stacks of letters, magazines, and newspaper clippings, a small sack of carnivores’ teeth, two unwound clocks, shoehorns, an unfilled pen in an onyx holder, a wood carved zebra, wart hog, rhino and lion in single file, and a wide-assortment of souvenirs, mementos and good luck charms. He never worked at the desk. Instead, he used a stand up work place he had fashioned out of a bookcase near his bed. His portable typewriter was snugged in there and papers were spread along the top of the bookcase on either side of it. He used a reading board for longhand writing.”

5 Reasons to Use a Stand-Up Desk

So should you follow in Jefferson’s and Hemingway’s footsteps and start working on your feet? Here are five reasons to consider making the switch:

1. To Avoid an Early Grave

Excessive sitting is slowly killing you. I know. It seems like hyperbole. But it’s not. A study found that men who sit for more than six hours of their leisure time each day had a 20% higher death rate than those who sat for three hours or less. The epidemiologist who conducted the study, Alpha Patel, concluded that excessive sitting literally shortens a person’s life by several years. Another study showed that men who sat for 23 or more hours a week had a 64% greater chance of dying from heart disease than those who sat for 11 hours per week or less.

So why is sitting so frighteningly bad for you?

Well sitting is the ultimate passive activity; you burn more calories chewing gum than you do slouching in your chair.

When you sit, the electrical activity in your muscles flat lines, and your body uses very little energy. Powering down your body like that for long periods of time leads to a cascade of negative effects. Your heart rate, calorie burn, insulin effectiveness, and levels of good cholesterol all drop. Your body also stops producing lipoprotein lipase and other molecules that are only released when you flex your muscles, such as when you are standing and walking. These molecules play an important role in processing fats and sugars; without them, your metabolism suffers. Add these factors up, and it’s no wonder that those who sit for long periods of time each day have larger waistlines and worse blood sugar and blood pressure profiles and are at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer than who sit less.

And if you think you’re off the hook because you get in a bout of vigorous exercise each day…you’re not. Studies have shown that exercise does not counteract the negative effects of sitting. It’s like thinking you can snack on Twinkies all day, and then offset that by running for an hour.

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