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Is Going Barefoot At Your Standing Desk Harmful? (Science Backed Conclusions)

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Working barefoot at a standing desk is a trend that has become increasingly popular, but does a worker actually gain any benefits from working at a standing desk if they take off their shoes? Researchers say not so much…but there is more to that answer than a simple no.

You see, it all goes back to the concept and design of the standing desk in the first place. As it turns out, researchers have found that the standing desk is not all that great for your body after all! Prolonged standing seemingly has more drawbacks than benefits.

But what about those bare feet? Standing barefoot has been shown by many studies to be preferable to standing in shoes, although they still advise against ongoing use of the standing desk.

Out of genuine interest we spent an afternoon summarising the main points and takeaways from all this research. You can find them below…

The Problem With Standing Desks

The concept of standing desks has been in circulation since the 1600s, but more recently, they have become  popular with ergonomic-centered companies who insist they are better for our health.

Just a few of the benefits attributed to standing desks include:

  • Reducing the blood sugar spike after eating (Source)
  • Increased calorie burning during the day that results in a lower risk of obesity (Source)
  • Reduced back pain vs sitting in an office chair (Source)

Although the research studies above do indicate the benefits of working at a standing desk it’s not all rosy as counter studies claim that working at a standing desk does more harm than good.

A few of the drawbacks attributed to standing desks include:

  • Increased fatigue related to ongoing standing (Source)
  • Increased lower back pain (Source)
  • Increased cardiovascular problems (Source)
  • Increased leg pain (Source)
  • Increased risk of pregnancy-related complications (Source)
  • Increased musculoskeletal disorders (Source)

Interestingly, a study by Thomas R. Waters, Ph.D., and Robert B. Dick, Ph.D. entitled “Evidence of Health Risks Associated with Prolonged Standing at Work and Intervention Effectiveness” states that the ill effects caused by prolonged standing at work are remediable with supportive interventions. For example

  • Adopting shoe inserts
  • Using desks that elevate and lower to alternate sitting and standing
  • Wearing special hosiery or stockings to support circulation

But what about standing barefoot?

The same study by Waters and Dick makes no mention of working barefoot at a standing desk; in fact, there are no studies on the topic at all. So our focus turns to looking at studies that pertain to prolonged standing.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Prolonged Standing And Bare Feet – What The Scientific Research Says

The study by Waters and Dick does mention that supportive interventions can mitigate some of the ill effects of prolonged standing at work but what the study doesn’t reference, however, is a “barefoot intervention.”

So, is barefoot standing better for your body when compared to standing in footwear? A study by P R Cavanagh, M M Rodgers, and A Iiboshi says so.

In an article entitled “Pressure distribution under symptom-free feet during barefoot standing,” P R Cavanagh, M M Rodgers, and A Iiboshi found that the body supports more than 60% of its weight on the heel, 28% on the forefoot, and 8% on the midfoot.

As you stand, the nerve endings and joint motion receptors in your feet and ankles send feedback to your brain about your current position and the environment. This feedback allows the brain to adjust to prevent fatigue and improve comfort.

When we add shoes into the mix, we are now creating a boundary between our feet and the ground. This boundary influences the information that is sent to the brain because your feet are always in contact with your shoe instead of the ground.

With little feedback, your brain does not make the small adjustments needed to prevent fatigue and pain, and we wind up pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone without even being aware that we are doing it.

Is Standing Barefoot Better For You?

Looking at the overall picture, a combination of sitting and standing is best rather than only sitting or only standing. This combination gives you a chance to move and increase the calories burned per day, but it also prevents things like lower back pain and joint pain that develop from prolonged standing.

If you have to stand for a prolonged period, standing barefoot is preferable to standing in shoes. The exception to this rule being when those shoes have custom inserts designed to support the foot.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Reasons Not To Stand Barefoot At A Standing Desk

Joint pain and fatigue are not the only risks of prolonged standing at work and though standing barefoot is better for your body than standing in footwear, there are a few concerns to consider that may convince you to stick with your sitting desk and your shoes.

Accidentally Dropping Items

Depending on where you work, you run the risk of dropping items or getting in the way and injuring your bare feet. For example, if you work in retail selling bowling balls and you drop a ball on your bare feet! Ouch!

Injury in the workplace is one reason why almost all employers enforce the policy that their employees wear footwear all of the time in the office!

Sanitation

Sanitation is another big concern when choosing to stand barefoot at your desk. If everyone in your office chooses to go barefoot and they walk around the office all day without shoes on, you run the risk of catching any number of things.

You expose yourself to..

  • Planters warts
  • Skin infections
  • Foot fungus like athlete’s foot

Odor

Something that no one really wants to talk about is foot odor but imagine if everyone in your workplace worked barefoot. The odds are that there are at least a handful of people with foot odor and this can create a particularly unpleasant work environment!

Injury

In addition to dropping things on your bare feet, working barefoot also poses the risk of injury. For example, even in an office environment hazards like dropped pins or rogue staples are present on the  ground all day long. 

Professionalism

Another concern with employees standing barefoot in the office is the impact that this will have on the perceived professionalism of a company. In other words, a client walking into an office full of people in bare feet certainly doesn’t scream professional. 

 

So What’s The Ideal Solution?

Prolonged standing is bad for your body. Prolonged standing in shoes at a standing desk is even worse. Prolonged standing in bare feet is bad for your body (prolonged standing) and dangerous…so…?

Like most things, the solution is happy medium. An adjustable standing desk is not a bad idea in and of itself, but it should be used with an anti-fatigue mat to encourage more movement and it should also be used as a sitting desk for half of the time it is in use.

Alternating between sitting and standing with an adjustable desk lets you break the monotony of being  sedentary while sitting all day, but it also keeps you from developing the health concerns associated with prolonged standing.

When it comes to shoes vs. barefoot, if it is not safe or practical to be barefoot, the optimal solution is a shoe designed for prolonged standing or at least a shoe designed to support your foot (for example, a shoe with an orthotic insert).

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