Campus Life stranger than fiction

Stand up against back pain

An elevated desk prevents many problems of working at a computer too long

It’s not easy being MIT students. In addition to carpal tunnel, eye strain, and weight gain from too much free food, we must deal with back pain from sitting hunched over a desk for long hours. Fortunately, there’s a solution for that last problem: a standing desk.

I suffered the pangs of poor posture last semester, when I was chained to my desk for my 6.005 project. I had to remove my pillow and sleep on the hard Institute mattress directly to relieve the soreness of 2 a.m. impromptu hackathons.

However, I discovered the difference that a standing desk makes over this summer, when I worked at a medical software and robotics company which appropriately provided standing desks to all of its employees, even lowly interns. I found I could code for hours without regretting it later. Without the burden of soreness, I held my head high.

Standing provides health benefits beyond back pain relief. According to a 2000 paper published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, standing burns 1.2 to 2.0 times as many calories as sitting. For example, by the Revised Harris-Benedict Equation, a twenty-year-old six-foot-tall woman weighing 150 pounds would burn about 65 calories sitting and 78–130 calories standing. It’s like multitasking: working and burning calories at the same time.

Besides the advantages of standing, there is evidence that prolonged sitting may be actively detrimental to your health. According to a 2010 article published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the amount of time sitting was correlated with an increase in death due to cardiovascular disease, despite routine exercise. A 2012 study on 222,497 Australian adults found that sitting was associated with increased mortality, even accounting for age, body mass index, and physical activity levels. It is speculated that the lack of muscle movement causes metabolism to slow down, raising levels of cholesterol, blood sugar, and triglycerides.

Using a standing desk has some historical basis for us engineers. Thomas Jefferson used a standing desk to draw architectural blueprints, and distinguished persons such as Leonardo da Vinci, Otto von Bismark, and Winston Churchill, all stood up to do their work.

A simple standing desk can cost $100–$500 online, with adjustable models costing up to $2000. Here are several budget-friendly options for tricking up a standing desk in your dorm room.

1. Adjust your bookshelf to standing desk height. This option only works for laptops, and it can be difficult to balance a lamp on the narrow surface. If you are the perfect height, it might also be possible to use an Institute-standard dresser as a desk.

2. Stack boxes on your desk. I like to use letter trays in order to reclaim some of the surface area taken up by the boxes. If you can’t find boxes of the appropriate height, you can stack textbooks for finer adjustment. Unfortunately, this setup takes up valuable desk room that you might want to reserve for vases of flowers or ornamental doilies.

3. Build your own standing desk. Ikea provides cheap, modular parts if you aren’t interested in cutting the wood yourself, and there are plenty of instructions online for a desk that should cost less than thirty dollars.

The standing desk in my room uses option two, mainly because I don’t want to move my institute desk. I’ve found that the Institute chair also provides a convenient platform to rest your knees on if your feet hurt from standing too much.

With these tricks, no more should we have to suffer under the tyranny of trapezius tension. It’s time to take a stand against back pain!

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

I am using a "Standing Fit" right now, not a full-time standing desk; I absolutely love it. Highly recommended!

DayMartin almost 11 years ago

I've been using one because of a sore back too! I love my Stand Steady (about $140 on Amazon, so not too pricey -- ). I like that it adjusts to my height plus it give me space underneath for books and storage.

Yancey almost 11 years ago

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