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William A. Levinson

Health Care

Use a Variable-Height Desk to Improve Productivity and Health

Flexible workstations can be created for less than $300

Published: Monday, February 27, 2017 - 13:03

‘Sitting is the new smoking” is a common new adage. James Levin, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic explains, “Too much sitting also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.” He adds that sitting for four rather than two hours a day in front of a TV screen increases the chance of death from all causes by 50 percent, and similar problems apply to sitting at a desk or in a car.

Although it is not possible to drive a car while standing, variable-height desks allow professionals to work while standing. “Variable height” is important because, while it is unhealthy to sit for eight or more hours a day, it can also be very tiring to stand for eight hours a day. According to a recent article by Alan Hedge et al. in U.S. News & World Report, “...standing too much can compress the spine and lead to lower back problems over time. It can also boost your risk for blocked carotid arteries, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, and other cardiovascular problems, since the heart has to work against gravity to keep blood flowing up from your toes.” Hedge adds, however, that alternating between sitting and standing offsets the problems associated with continuous sitting and continuous standing.

The introduction of variable-height desks to modern workplaces could therefore do for office workers what Frank Gilbreth’s nonstooping scaffold did for brick layers more than 100 years ago. These desks would also support ISO 9001:2015, clause 7.1.4—“Environment for the Operation of Processes.” While nothing in this article constitutes formal engineering or industrial ergonomic advice, foreseeable benefits include:

Higher alertness and improved productivity. This has been my experience for the past couple of weeks after my variable height desk arrived. Productivity improvements of roughly 10 percent are achievable, according to an in-house study by the Draugiem Group, and an IEE article reports a 46 percent productivity gain in a call center that implemented stand-capable desks.

Fewer lost work days due to illness. Add to that lower medical costs for workers and employers.

Weight loss. Standing vs. sitting is estimated to burn an additional 50 calories per hour, according to BBC News. So standing for even two hours a day consumes an extra 100 calories. This does not sound like much, but given that there are 3,500 calories to a pound of fat, this comes to loss of a pound every seven weeks if one does not increase one’s food intake. The effect of standing on the body’s control of blood sugar levels may in fact make it easier to stick to a diet.

The reference adds that Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, and Benjamin Franklin all used standing desks, and furthermore that “prolonged sitting has not only been linked to problems with blood glucose control, but also a sharp reduction in the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which breaks down blood fats and makes them available as a fuel to the muscles.” Bus conductors (who stand) had half the heart disease risk as bus drivers (who sit all day).

How to do it

The Mayo Clinic provides excellent guidance on ergonomics for a standing work station. The top of the computer monitor should be at roughly eye level, and about 20 in. away. I found that this is important to avoid bending my neck while standing. The reference also recommends placing the mouse and keyboard on the same surface, and that the elbows should be at roughly 90° while typing. I found, however, that I had to put the keyboard lower (on the sliding keyboard support) to achieve the desired position and also leave room for books, trade journals, and paperwork on the desk itself.

It is also necessary, however, to allow easy transition between seated and standing working positions. I achieved this for less than $300 by ordering and installing the following items:

• Lorell Desktop Sit-Stand Workstation ($160). This can be manually raised or lowered to standing and sitting positions, respectively.
• Fleximounts F9 Full Motion Desk Mount ($70) for the monitor. This clamps onto the workstation surface and is compatible with 75 mm × 75 mm and 100 mm × 100 mm VESA-compliant monitors. This means the monitor end of the mount can be attached to the monitor with screws. Similar mounts are available for dual monitors, although they will be somewhat more expensive.
• GelPro ergonomic mat for standing ($37)
• Extended cables for the monitor, keyboard, and mouse

More elaborate solutions are available. There are electrically-powered variable-height desks that go up and down automatically, although it does not take much effort to move the Lorell workstation up and down. It is important to remember, however, to push backward as well as down to lower it.

Here are the workstation and monitor in the seated working position. Note that there is plenty of room on the work surface for, in this case, a trade journal.

Seated working position

Here are the workstation and monitor in the standing working position. Note that the Fleximounts desk mount must be used to raise the monitor to the correct eye level; I added the wooden block under the mount to gain an additional 7/8 in. for this purpose. I am, however, 6 ft tall, which means the mount by itself should be able to provide the correct working height for most people. The mouse is placed on the work surface to use while standing. The only potential drawback of this arrangement is that the keyboard support does not have room for the mouse pad, although this should not be a problem for keyboards with integrated touch mouse pads like those common with notebook computers.

Standing working position

I have found that I can work while standing comfortably for up to three hours a day with this arrangement. The relatively low (under $300) cost of implementation, and the potentially enormous health and productivity benefits certainly recommend that this be tried in all workplaces. Employers might consider asking who wants to try it, and then having those employees report results, which are likely to encourage widespread buy-in by the entire workforce.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. He is an ASQ-certified quality engineer, quality auditor, quality manager, reliability engineer, and Six Sigma Black Belt, and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford's Universal Code for World-Class Success.



Another option

Great article Bill! Here's my version of your recommendation: https://cl.ly/3c3e0b3V0l35 I like the up / down throughout the day, and with this setup it takes only 20 seconds to switch (the monitor is on a stand that I can raise / lower with a couple of fingers). I like the look of a more traditional desk when I want to have a sit-down meeting. This is a great article for Quality Digest. If comfort, physical energy, and ease of work are not part of the quality and productivity game, then I don't know what is! Best, Jeff

Statistical Voodoo

"...sitting for four rather than two hours a day ...increases the chance of death from all causes by 50 percent"

I don't really know where to start with this but lets begin with the, hopefully undisputed, premise that the chances of dying from all causes is 100%. Further, I hope we can all agree that a 150% chance of anything is a meaningless number. Hence the claim as written is likewise meaningless.

If the intent was to indicate that there is a corelation between sitting and life expectancy, then those numbers, which I would have to assume are available, should be the stated relation.

Increased risk

The reference explains,

One study compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of the TV or other screen-based entertainment with those who logged more than four hours a day of recreational screen time. Those with greater screen time had:

  • A nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause
  • About a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack

I think what he means is that, if your risk of chest pain or heart attack would normally be 10%, your risk would be 22.5% (125% more) due to sitting. 225% means multiplication by 2.25

I am by the way up to about 6 hours a day, and I feel a lot healthier!


Sorry, I can't get past the absolute that I have a 100% chance of dying. When that time arrives I will, with 100% certainty, have died from some cause. Now, if I take any possible cause of death, let us call its statistical probability "p".  It follows that the probability of dying from any other cause must be 100-p. If I increase the probability by 50%, that probability becomes 1.5p and the probability of dying from another cause becomes 100-1.5p. Obviously, if I repeat this exercise for another cause, the remainder will again decrement. Also obvious is the fact that while it is possible that individual causes may become more frequent, it can only be by the reduction of one or more others. Hence, any claim increasing the probability of all causes must be a statistical oxymoron.

Think of it as a reliability exercise

It's like having a part that will certainly fail after a certain number of cycles or time in service. However, if you increase the hazard rate, it is more likely that it will fail sooner. Certain behaviors like smoking, and now apparently sitting all day, increase the hazard rate for various illnesses and can therefore be expected to decrease our life expectancy.


My point exactly, its not how, or why, it is when....