Your best position is your next one
Out of the 168 hours in a week the one thing we all with very minor exceptions do besides the ~56 odd hours of sleeping is 40+ (25%+) hours of sitting. At breakfast, in the car, train, at work and than repeat in reverse order. From age 6 in school and into eternity.
Guess what? Our bodies get used to it. Unfortunately not in a good way. Slouched shoulders and humped back are a common occurrence among everybody. All as results of muscle imbalances. When a muscle doesn’t need to support a posture against load/gravity, it gets lazy and it’s antagonist buddy has to do all the work – it gets tight. In short (pun intended) things get out of order all over the place and no wonder low back pain, tight neck and tension headaches are considered normal. Astronauts in zero gravity have some problems like that as well.
The “Active Couch Potato”
Nowadays it is easier than ever to keep track of your fitness and activity levels. Step counters, sleep monitors, heart rate variablity apps are widely available and easy to use. They all represent a step toward a more active lifestyle, though our chairs, desks and automobiles still occupy a significant part of our daily lives.
I don’t know who coined the term though I heard a study (and I truly believe it) that measured how much professional athletes spend inactive (sitting) in day. The figures were stunning – in short besides their chosen activity, they were mainly sedentary – an active couch potato.
Competitive athlete or not, you cannot be going against your body’s natural positions for a more than a quarter of your living hours and not expect (painful) repercussions. There is a big room for improvement in lifestyle factors in order to improve general wellbeing and athletic performance and this is what I will be covering in in the ‘Experiments in Speed’ section. One place for big improvement that you can make is what is referred as the active workstation. Therefore sitting or rather minimising it should be a priority.
The Active Workstation
Everything new is the well-forgotten old
If you are not sitting down you must standing (or lying down). As such standing desks are not new. Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemmingway, and the writer Philip Roth are among many famous standing desk users.
So the real question is?
Why Would YOU Want an Active Workstation?
It is not a case of just standing there…it is an active workstation
Out of the many ways too look at it, I have only 2 words for you – neutral spine. In this position everything sits in the way mother nature intended it to – in balance and readiness. I know there are studies and information about the long term effects of standing (though bad diet is a good contributor to most of them), however, this is the point to make an important distinction – it is not a case of just standing there; it represents more than a place to work – it is an active workstation – remember your best position is your next one; you are in dynamic stillness, free to move and not confined to a single position. You can get a kettlebell or a pair of dumbells and do a couple of lunges/squats every once and a while (with neutral spine/good form) and a floor pad with a texture to keep your feet constantly receiving new stimuli.
So how can you set up an active workstation?
I have seen some creative ones that use dressers, though for my personal use, being the taller than average individual I needed something different. Also it neded to fit the small corner in the appartment where I have my work area. Therefore what is next is one out of millions of possibilities that can suit your needs – a spark to ignite your creativity.
How Did I Build My Active Workstation
I did some quick searches and figured out that with black iron pipe (20/27 or 3/4in) would suit perfectly due to the following advantages.
- It is modular. You can change the size/height at any time if you move, change working space, you can add shelves etc.
- It is cheap and widely available in variety of sizes, fittings, etc. Therefore possibilities are limitless.
- I have a small place in my apartment where I work therefore, this was the perfect solution. Black iron pipe is also very good material for all kind of steampunk/industrial type of furniture, bookshelves, lamps, etc.
First things first, how should a standing desk fit?
Though standing on one leg like the illustration is NOT a way to hold a neutral spine, the important fit points are:
- The table top should be at a height so that with relaxed shoulders your elbows are at 90 degrees or slightly more.
- When with neutral spine/good posture your eyes should effortlessly find the top one third of the screen; you will need some kind of small shelf. Books might work here.
- From time to time you might rest one leg on a crossbar/footstool/kettlebell
The Nuts and Bolts (and Pipes)
- Pencil and paper. Measure the height of your elbows (with a help of a friend) from the floor in order to achieve the dimensions mentioned above. Do your project on a sheet of paper first and triple check your calculations and the number of parts you will need. Everything times 4 for each leg, but you have some crossbars, etc.
- 3/4 inch pipe is fine for most needs. 1 inch might be better for larger desks with multiple screens/computers, etc. Anything smaller than 3/4 might be too flimsy in my opinion. Larger tops might need some sort of crossbar under the countertop as well.
- The pipes do not butt against each other in the joints. Therefore the assembly ends up longer/taller than what you pre-calculated – 2-4cm (1-1.5in) per joint. This is what happened to me and why I had to get creative and there is a T-joint awkwardly out of place at the bottom of the desk. Thankfully, as pointed previously, it is all modular. I ended up with a completely different model than what I envisioned and had a lot of parts left. It was a lego puzzle and a good brain exercise as well!
- Black iron pipe comes with some kind of dark oily film to protect it from rust. You can use mineral spirits/acetone to degrease it before you assemble, so you don’t get it on your nice clothes once you are working. That being said, put some old clothes and degrease in a well ventilated area.
- Use thick working gloves. Pipes might have burrs, etc. and threads might be sharp. I bet you don’t remember when you get your last tetanus shot….
- I didn’t paint mine for a natural look. If you decide to paint it use a primer first and than paint.
- For the countertop if using raw unpainted wood, pretreat it with some oil suited for the purpose (ask in your local hardware store if unsure)
- Sand sharp edges so you avoid tearing up your nice clothes/bruising yourself by accident.
- The flanges require some hefty screws so pre-drill small holes in the wood so you don’t end up cracking it. Bar soap (NOT liquid) and/or candlewax is a wonderful lubricant for driving in screws.
- Put some soft felt pads on the bottom of the legs so you don’t end up scratching your floor
- I think the most stable construction is one with an H that holds the legs at the bottom keeping everything firm and not wobbly. Make it to fit YOUR needs (and the ones of other users of the workspace).
- Black iron pipe in lengths to suit your need. I couldn’t get ones longer than 300mm (~1ft), the stocks where you are might vary
- Joints – straight and T
- Floor flanges to attach the legs to the top
- 4 black iron end caps (also useful for levelling)
- Wooden top (for both the desk and the small shelf) – in my case what I had cut out to make it fit in the corner, fit the small IKEA shelf perfectly.
- Wood screws
- IKEA Lillangen feet
- (Power) screwdriver
- Spirit level
- Patience and creativity
Total cost: ~120 euros ($130 at the time of this post)+3-4h on a Sunday afternoon. While some might say it is not cheap, remember that a single visit at the physiotherapist is 60 euros (local rates) and it is usually not fully, if at all reimbursed by insurance (everybody has muscle imbalances, so insurance companies would go broke and they ain’t that stupid).
Here are some more pictures of my current active workstation. The little gray table on the right is where I used to sit before. I was too busy trying to figure everything out, so I didn’t take before pictures, since as I had to change plans on the go, I was experimenting all afternoon and at some point it was just finished. It is super solid and after some adjustments of the end caps to level everything out it was all set up in my work corner.
As this is one of many future ‘Experiments in Speed,’ I will give it a good 21-30 days and come back here and report on my experiences – positive and/or negative.
Best of luck with building your own active worksation and I leave you with a cute video by Kelly Starrett.
And remember changes will feel unnatural at first, give it time, it’s a process.
[amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837] – Kelly Starrett
[amazon text=Ready to Run&asin=1628600098] – Kelly Starrett and TJ Murphy
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This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.
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- Winston Churchill: Link
- Standing desk measurements: Wikimedia Commons