Some people can't stand working. Mark Ramirez works standing. • He is a senior executive at AOL. Ramirez could, if he wanted, curl into the cushiest leather chair in the Staples catalogue. No, thanks. He prefers to stand most of the day at a desk raised above stomach level. • "I've got my knees bent, I feel totally alive," Ramirez said. "It feels more natural to stand. I wouldn't go back to sitting."
In the past few years, standing has become the new sitting for 10 percent of AOL employees at the firm's Dulles, Va., campus, part of a standing ovation among accountants, programmers, bureaucrats, telemarketers and other office workers across the nation.
GeekDesk, a California company that sells $800 desks raised by electric motors, says sales will triple this year. It has sold standing desks to the Secret Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. Many firms and government agencies require standing setups in new contracts for office furniture.
Standers give various reasons for taking to their feet: It makes them feel more focused, prevents drowsiness, makes them feel like a general even if they just push paper. (Former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld works standing up. So does novelist Philip Roth.) But unknown to them, a debate is percolating among ergonomics experts and public health researchers about whether all office workers should be encouraged to stand — to save lives.
"Every rock we turn over when it comes to sitting is stunning," said Marc Hamilton, a researcher on inactivity physiology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana. "Sitting is hazardous. It's dangerous. We are on the cusp of a major revolution about what we think of as healthy behavior in the workplace." He calls sitting the "new smoking."
Not so fast, other experts say. Standing too much at work will cause more long-term back injuries — ask factory workers, they say. Incidences of varicose veins among women will increase. The heart will have to pump more. Alan Hedge, a noted ergonomics scholar at Cornell University, went so far as to call standing at work "one of the stupidest things one would ever want to do. This is the high heels of the furniture industry."
What everyone can agree on, though, is that we were not exactly built to sit.
"We were built to stand, to move, to walk," said James Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who is so fanatical about not sitting at work that he walks at 1 mph all day on a treadmill at his desk.
Kate Kirkpatrick stands at work, although not because she knew that doing so might extend her life. She had no idea. An executive at Gensler, an international design and architecture firm in the District of Columbia, she began standing last year after a running injury made sitting painful.
The injury went away, but Kirkpatrick never retook her seat. She has a keyboard attached to her desk, which rises so she can stand and use it. She works most of the day standing up, wearing comfy running shoes. Her prized Aeron chair, that staple of modern office life? Pushed to the side. She feels great.
"I don't get that need-to-take-a-nap feeling in the middle of the day anymore," Kirkpatrick said. "My body just feels more healthy. I'm more alert. The tightness you get in the neck from sitting all day long, that's gone too. I'm just more comfortable now."
Hedge, the Cornell professor, isn't a fan of all this standing."
The sensible and most cost-effective strategy, he said, is to sit in a neutral posture, slightly reclined, with the keyboard on a tray above the lap. This position promotes positive blood flow. Workers should then occasionally walk around, stretch and avoid prolonged periods at the desk. The key, he said, is movement, not standing.
"If you stand all day," he said, "you will be worse off than if you sit all day."