What are the best shoes for standing all day at a standing desk?

Dr. Benno Nigg, a professor of biomechanics, co-director of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Calgary in Alberta, works at an adjustable standing desk and alternates between sitting and standing throughout the day.

So what does a leading researcher on orthotics wear on his feet when he stands at his desk?

Nothing but socks.

He does, however, stand on a kybun mat, an extremely soft mat 6 cm in height, designed by Karl Müller, the Swiss engineer who introduced the Masai Barefoot Technology shoes in 1996 (which ushered in the modern craze for barefoot/minimalist shoes).

Dr. Nigg explains that standing on a firm surface for long periods of time is not ideal because certain parts of your body will bear the entire burden of standing and that, over time, this may cause problems in those areas. On the other hand, standing on a soft surface provides an unstable base that requires your muscles to change their activity constantly and prevents that kind of constant load on particular parts of your anatomy. An additional positive effect of using a soft mat, says Dr. Nigg, is that the small muscles crossing the ankle joint are exercised and strengthened, improving your stability in general.

But if going shoeless like Dr. Nigg really isn’t an option for your workplace, what shoe should you wear for standing at your desk?

In the standing desk community,  there seem to be two conflicting opinions: barefoot/minimalist shoes or shoes with great arch and/or ankle support. Ask a standing desk user what he wears on his feet and he’s just as likely to tell you he goes blithely barefoot as he is to tell you he that he has to wear shoes with supportive arches or his feet are killing him at the end of the day.

On the surface, this division of opinion seems confusing — but it really shouldn’t be. When Dr. Nigg is posed the question, “What shoe is the best shoe?” He answers with, “There is no best shoe.” What matters, he explains, is comfort. And what is comfortable for some people will be uncomfortable for others and vice versa.

(Dr. Nigg has done extensive research on shoe inserts or orthotics that shows they can help lessen the frequency of exercise injury, but only when chosen by the wearer him or herself, on the basis of comfort. You can read more about his research and how the entire orthotics industry is currently more an art than a science in this New York Times article.)

In fact, Dr. Nigg is so adamantly against the notion of the “best shoes” that when I ask him what kind of shoes he wears, he’ll only go so far as to admit he likes “Bally shoes or something similar” for everyday wear and when pressed on what he wears for hiking and running, he simply says, “Running or hiking shoes.”

Dr. Howard Friedman, a podiatrist and board-certified foot surgeon based in Suffern, New York, agrees that someone with no foot issues should simply wear what they are comfortable in and that lots of shoes would be fine for wearing at a standing desk, from everyday casual shoes to walking shoes to running shoes. He does suggest that those who are transitioning from sitting to a standing desk should wear a shoe with plenty of room in the toe, to allow the foot to move around.

“For someone with a sore flat foot, a shoe with a supportive arch would  probably be best and something like a Dansko clog might be ideal since the arch is supportive, solid and there is room in the toe area,” says Dr. Friedman. “They are still pretty popular in hospitals with operating room nurses and surgeons who stand for long periods of time.”

“More important than the shoe is probably what the worker does with his or her feet while standing,” Dr. Friedman goes on to say. He recommends that standing workers get in the habit of doing three exercises throughout the day: periodically raising themselves up on tiptoe; raising the forefoot to balance on the heels; and alternating standing on one foot at a time – like a flamingo – for short periods.

Dr. Friedman also thinks it is often a good idea to change shoes during the course of the day since one pair of shoes will wear out in the same spot. “Changing to different shoes will probably shift the pressure underfoot around a bit,” he says.

The takeaway from all of this seems to be that when it comes to what to wear on your feet while you work at a standing desk, it’s a matter of trial and error. Pick a pair of shoes that is comfortable for you, or a couple of pairs, and try them out. Pay attention to how your feet feel after using them for a while, and the rest of your body, too.

Here are some options to consider, ranging from supportive to minimalist:

What kind of shoes do you wear at your standing desk and why? Tell us about them in the comments.

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