What Plantar Fasciitis Sufferers Need to Know About Standing Desks and Treadmill Desks
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As the longest-time sufferer of chronic plantar fasciitis (two decades) and longest-time user of treadmill desks (since 2009) on the WorkWhileWalking staff, I end up fielding most of the questions we get from readers who suffer from some degree of fasciitis. In this blog post, I’ll sum up my personal anecdotal experience as well as inputs we’ve received from numerous podiatrists, orthopedists, chiropractors, physical therapists, and massage therapists with extensive experience treating plantar fasciitis patients. If you’re dealing with foot pain outside of plantar fasciitis, be sure to read our more general article on 5 Ways to Keep Your Feet Happy While Using A Standing Desk.
For most sufferers, symptoms tend to wax and wane, usually worsening after a trigger event such as overuse, or from walking barefoot or without their prescribed orthotics for anything more than a midnight pad over to the bathroom. When that happens there are a variety of conservative remedies available. Icing, stretching, self-massage (porcupine balls are among my favorite inexpensive devices for breaking up scar tissue to help relieve the pain), along with basic rest are all effective at relieving pain. If things don’t get better quickly a visit to the massage therapist, physical therapist, chiropractor or foot specialist is usually in order –but this involves a delay in getting an appointment, time for the visit and some expense. More extreme cases may require hydrocortisone injections or surgery, both of which can have serious long-term repercussions, and are not to be entered into lightly.
The Vicious Cycle for Overweight Sufferers
The conundrum many fasciitis sufferers face daily is that too much rest (including sedentary inactivity, like spending too many hours in front of the computer or watching TV) can atrophy the foot muscles just enough so that upon the next strenuous event – sometimes simply standing after a prolonged period of sitting – deep pain is triggered once again. Yet without activity, how can one go about strengthening their foot muscles? The exercises your physical therapist showed you to do, like scrunching up a towel with your toes, will only get you so far. It becomes a vicious cycle for many, especially those whose plantar fasciitis condition is tied to an overweight or obesity condition. Throw in Type II diabetes and you get a poor health trifecta. These people find it the hardest to perform good aerobic, fat-burning exercise without reinjuring their foot – and setting them right back on their heels, so to speak, yet again.
How Standing More (i.e. Sitting Less) Can Potentially Help
I used to avoid long periods of standing, per my doctors’ orders. Then, one day, I was tapped to be a judge at my kid’s chess tournament, which basically entailed being on my feet for 9 hours, on a hard gymnasium floor with no carpeted areas. I walked about only in short spurts to record scores, approve emergent restroom breaks, and hush talkative contestants. By the end of the day I thought I was literally going to die of foot pain. I spent the evening icing and massaging my feet, and swore off chess tournament volunteering forever. Shockingly, I woke up the next day with less plantar pain than I’d had in months.
Something about standing all day appeared to have strengthened my foot muscles – despite the excruciating pain – so much so that after a day of rest I was actually eager to take a hike. I ended up walking 6 miles that day! Could it be a case of “no pain, no gain?” Could it be that all I really needed to break a long-enduring heightened condition of plantar fasciitis was a torturously long and painful standing session?
When I inquired with several of the health care professionals who treat my plantar condition, none had ever heard of this phenomenon and all were cautious about encouraging me to do something like that again. So, of course, I signed up to judge another chess tournament… and another, and another. Each time the experience was similar, only the 9-hour standing sessions got less and less painful, and I found myself more and more energized simply from having less pain. The medical literature doesn’t say anything about this potential method of treatment – frankly it just hasn’t been studied. [Update Dec 2021: I eventually found a more highly-trained personal trainer with a certification in Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) that was not at all surprised with my experience.]
Standard disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, so I can’t in good faith tell you to treat your fasciitis by standing in pain for nine hours. What I can say is it works for me, and has become my own personal regimen for reining in plantar fasciitis whenever it gets really bad; which is admittedly rare these days because…
Using a Treadmill Desk Can Do Even More to Reduce Plantar Fasciitis Pain
Anyone who has ever had to work a trade show booth, standing on their feet all day, knows how much better it feels to walk the show than to work the booth. When we walk, our calf muscles pump blood back up our legs rather than letting it pool in our lower legs (one reason standing too much can lead to varicose veins). More importantly, even gentle walking (1 to 2 mph is the typical pace on a treadmill desk) will tighten ligaments, lubricate joints, build core strength and improve posture, and in general help our bodies stay limber and ready for action. Standing, not as much. Sitting for longer than half an hour at a time, the reverse.
For plantar fasciitis sufferers, and particularly for those of us who are challenged by being overweight or obese, a treadmill desk does more than burn some extra calories. Because of our double-whammy condition, getting good solid sessions of fat-burning aerobic exercise can be tough either because we lack the stamina or we injure too quickly, if not both. This is where I’ve personally found the treadmill desk to be a godsend. By using it two to four hours per day I’ve been able to keep my feet, ankles, knees, and hips in good condition with minimal impact, which has allowed me to graduate to extensive workouts at the gym and/or hikes in the woods every day of the week with far less injury or fatigue than I used to experience before.
If you do start treadmill desking be sure to read our comprehensive advice on how to safely and efficiently ramp up this new activity so you get the most of your new equipment and avoid common ergonomic pitfalls that can set you back. If you don’t have the space for a treadmill desk then by all means start with a standing desk – it’ll keep you out of your chair that many more hours per day, and that’s step one.
The Benefits of a Standing Desk
Again, it may not be feasible for everyone to bring a treadmill desk into their home or office work environment, and that’s perfectly fine. What’s most important is getting out of your chair and creating some sort of active movement in your work day. The physical health deficiencies that are created by sitting all day at work (minus the handful of runs to the coffee pot and restroom) are extensive, but let’s settle on three serious muscular ones. By taking the weight off of your legs, you are actually doing your body a disservice in that the largest muscles you have on your body (quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes) are no longer engaged. Do this long enough, and those muscles will shrink up to failure rather quickly.
That’s why standing is so important. Just by getting off of your butt and engaging your lower leg muscles, the muscles in your feet and your gluteus maximus, you’ve already made a big difference in your body’s physical health. Then, there’s the benefits to the back and core muscles that we haven’t addressed. Some of the most chronic ailments found in those who sit for a living are bad backs, tight hips and obesity. The frustrating part for the sufferer is that the weight gain makes the hip and back pain that much harder to fight (and the reason for the pain in the first place).
There are products on the market now that help create an active workspace even at a stationary standing desk. One example is a balance board. The market has dozens of different and useful options out there for a prospective user to choose from, so I encourage you to look around and find the option that appeals to you most. One tip to be aware of here, make sure you find a product that will be gentle on the flooring surface that you have at your workspace. Many of these balance board products can damage hardwood floors and carpets as I have recently discovered. Once you add a product such as a Gymba into your standing routine, the benefits you will notice are plentiful. For starters, those foot muscles that have long bothered those of us who suffer from plantar fasciitis once again receive the movement and flexing that our species (we don’t need to go into a whole anthropology lesson here, suffice to say it is in the Homo sapien DNA to be active on two legs) has long required.
The benefits are not simply physical, either. By engaging our lower body, the mind becomes alert. The human brain — remember our caveman ancestors — becomes hyper focused when the body is in motion to protect itself. This alertness will enable you to be more productive, fight off post-meal fatigue and even help you fight depression. The Gymba board is a tool that can actually allow users to walk in place in the way users shift their weight and move their feet. Decide for yourself by reading the top balance board review.
If you feel a balance board is too much for you to try to begin with, opt for a standing mat to alleviate the pressure that can build on the soles of your feet. There are high quality standing mats on the market made from polyurethane like the Ecolast brand, which offer the quality and the durability to allow workers to stand endlessly without feeling the typical distress that can build from standing on surfaces like concrete, tile, hardwood et al for hours on end. Standing mats are commonly used by retail and factory workers who are always on their feet.