Ed Kocher wanted his dining room table back—and some relief from his chronic backaches. So after a month of 10-hour workdays at his Mount Ephraim, N.J., home because of the coronavirus pandemic, the logistics manager took the advice of a friend and bought a standing desk.
The model that Kocher bought, from a company called Vari, has a 4-foot-wide reclaimed wood top and an electric motor that allows the entire desktop to move quickly and easily from standing height to sitting and back. Kocher expected to spend most of his time standing, but he came to realize that switching between sitting and standing works best for him. "I definitely mix it up," he says. "My back feels great now and it's light-years better than the dining room table."
Standing desks started getting popular a few years ago when medical researchers began warning about the health dangers of sitting all day. A doctor at the Mayo Clinic even coined the motto, "sitting is the new smoking," and it caught on.
Today, though, ergonomics experts say the consensus is that switching back and forth throughout the day is the healthiest for your body. "It isn’t that standing all day is better than sitting," says Dana Keester, CR's in-house ergonomics expert. "The main benefit of a standing desk is the ability to move."
Standing desks come in several basic styles, and they all let you switch quickly between sitting and standing. The best style depends on personal factors, including your home office space.
- Swing arm models are an unobtrusive piece of hardware that allows you to raise your monitor or your laptop, so that the webcam is positioned at eye level for online meetings. They attach with screws or clamps to an existing work surface and can be pushed out of the way when not in use.
- Conversion desks sit on top of an existing desk and raise both the keyboard and the monitor, or a laptop, to a standing height, usually with a manual, spring-assisted mechanism, although there's a growing number of power-assisted models.
- Dedicated sit-stand desks like the one Kocher bought, function like a regular desk with room for not only a keyboard and monitor, but papers, books, and even a water bottle or coffee cup. On most models, a motor raises the desk from sitting to standing height and back again.
To choose the best desk for your needs, there are a couple of things to consider, starting with ergonomics.
The Basics of Ergonomics
First step in picking a desk: Make sure it's the right height, says Carolyn Sommerich, an associate professor of systems engineering at Ohio State University. Whether you're sitting or standing, when you're typing your forearms should be parallel to the ground, your elbows at around a 90-degree angle, and your feet flat on the floor. When you're sitting, your hips and knees should also be at an optimum 90-degree angle.
Experts stress that if you're even a little taller or shorter than average, you shouldn't assume that all standing desks will accommodate you. So grab a tape measure and a friend to measure from the floor to the bottom of your bent elbow while standing and sitting. That's how high above the floor the keyboard should be, in both its raised and lowered positions. Also measure your seated and standing eye level, which is where your monitor should be placed, so you can look forward at your screen, not up or down.
In general, a wider the range of adjustment is almost always better; the devices tend to be most stable when they're not at their max height.
A few quick tips: If you're not ready to commit to a standing desk, or the model you want is back-ordered right now, an ironing board makes a surprisingly good substitute, according to University of Cincinnati public health sciences professor Kermit Davis.
Plan to stand on a mat in supportive shoes to protect your joints, especially if you'll be standing on a concrete or tile floor. Finally, if you have lots of equipment with power cords, Ethernet cables, and other wires, think about how you'll hook those up as you're shopping. For instance, you may need to invest in longer cords, or decide to get a wireless, rather than wired, keyboard.
Here are the details on the three standing desk styles to help you choose the right model for your needs.
Swing Arm Adaptors
A swing arm adaptor clamps to the back of an existing desk or table with either a shelf for a laptop or a mount for a monitor. The swing arm can be lowered (if you're using a monitor) to a seated position or the shelf can be moved out of the way if you want to place your laptop on your desk or spread out your paperwork.
Who it's for: A laptop user who does lots of teleconferencing, and wants to make maximum use of every square inch of space.
Price range: $100 to $300
Pros: They're relatively inexpensive, and work well for someone who's doing a lot of teleconferencing. The laptop's webcam can remain at eye level while you're sitting or standing and can even be adjusted mid-meeting. This can help you avoid the unflattering angles you get when you're videoconferencing and you leave your laptop on your lap.
Cons: If you use one of these devices to elevate your laptop monitor while seated, you'll need an external keyboard to maintain good ergonomics for typing. You may also need something to boost the height of your external keyboard if you're typing a lot while standing.
What to avoid: Indecision. Many swing-arm adaptors are designed either for a laptop or a monitor, so if you're considering a move from a laptop to a dedicated monitor, you may have to buy a different model or shop for one, like the Upflift Desk Range monitor arm, that can do double duty with an optional laptop shelf. "You need to really think about how you're going to use it," says Meg Honan, a California-based board-certified ergonomist and workspace consultant.
A conversion desk sits atop your existing desk or a table, with no permanent mounting required. Most models have two shelves—one for a monitor or monitors and the other for the keyboard—which move up and down in concert, boosted by a spring mechanism or other mechanical device. There are one-shelf models for laptops, although a swing arm model might be a better choice. Vari (formerly Varidesk) makes some of the most popular models—Kocher placed an order for a conversion unit before changing his mind and ordering his dedicated sit-stand desk.
Who it's for: Someone tight on space and funds who's willing to do a bit of work to raise and lower the desk.
Price range: $100 to $400
Pros: Relatively inexpensive. Saves space because you can use your existing desk.
Cons: The conversion unit adds height to an existing table or desk, which can mess up your seated typing position, especially if you're relatively short. The surface area is too small for much besides a keyboard and a mouse, so your other work materials will likely stay on the desktop well below your screen and keyboard. If you've used a multiple monitor setup or other heavy gear, some manual models can be hard to raise or lower—in which case you might investigate a conversion desk with an electric motor.
What to avoid: Models with limited adjustment range. Make sure the model you buy rises high enough to put your monitor at eye level; that can be a challenge with some models, especially if you're six feet tall or bigger. "You need to have a range of 18 to 20 inches," says Honan.
The entire surface of a sit-stand desk moves up and down, usually powered by an electric motor. A few less-expensive models have hand-crank mechanisms that, experts warn, take lots of time and effort to adjust. That means you're less likely to change positions as often as you should. "The hand-cranking models are horrible," Cincinnati professor Davis says flatly.
Who it's for: Someone who's going to be doing a lot of working from home, and can devote the space to a dedicated workstation.
Price range: $300 to $1,500 and up
Pros: Dedicated desks tend to offer the widest range of adjustment, especially at the low-height end, where they can dip well below the standard 29-inch desk height, which is a relic of the pre-computer era. Most models are motorized to allow for quick and easy transitions and some, like the Fully Jarvis, have presets that allow you to dial in your optimal sitting and standing height and change frequently throughout the day. Most also allow you to choose from various desktop colors and materials when you order, while outlet strips and other wire management accessories tend to be an option.
Cons: These desks tend to be more expensive than the other options, and they take up more space in your home. Some less expensive models don't have a sufficient range of adjustment and can be less than stable at their full height. (Look for models with beefy cross bracing between the two legs or three-section legs with a large cross-section.) Many models have little or no drawer space compared with a conventional desk, because the weight of the drawers and their contents can tax the motors and structure of a desk.
What to avoid: Desktops that are too small. You don't just need room for just your keyboard and monitor, but also for everything else on your desk, from your stapler to your water bottle. You'll want a little extra space around the perimeter so items don't keep falling off when you're raising or lowering the desk. "If a desk is smaller than 4-feet wide, it's too small," Honan says.