Okay, those who are familiar with my writing style are probably saying, “So what’s unusual about that, Keith? I mean, tell me something I don’t know.”
But this time it’s different. I’m not talking about being mentally unstable – at the very least, I’ll plead the Fifth on that account. No, as I type these words, it would be no exaggeration to say that I am standing on shaky ground. Physically speaking, that is.
Let me explain. Several weeks ago I was contacted by a representative of a company called FluidStance, asking if I’d be interested in evaluating a new product they had developed, which they called the Level. The premise of the Level is simple: it’s a flat surface for you to stand on, built on top of a slightly convex aluminum frame, which prevents it from lying flat on the floor. When standing on this device, it’s up to you to maintain your balance, which ultimately causes you to remain in a constant – but subtle – state of motion.
If you’re familiar with the “yoga balls” that many people now are using as desk chairs, it’s a somewhat similar concept: that of sitting more actively, and using your core to maintain your posture and balance. But since with this device you’re standing rather than sitting, the Level creates a sensation more akin to surfing (or perhaps paddle boarding).
This offer left me both intrigued and reluctant. To say that my lifestyle is overly sedentary is quite an understatement. I have a corporate writing gig that I do in my own home, and my primary creative and recreational activities are writing fiction and writing music. In other words, there’s nothing I do on any given day that I can’t do in a chair – or even on a couch. My somewhat less than svelte frame would suggest that this level of sedentariness (hey, it might be a word) is perhaps not the healthiest choice. So I started using a standing desk earlier this year, as I documented in this WU post. Several months into the endeavor, I’ll admit that I’m not always good about using it, but I do keep it nearby, and try to make sure I spend at least some of my day not sitting on my ever-expanding posterior.
[pullquote]To put it more bluntly (and far more accurately), I’ve been blessed with the physical grace of a one-eyed drunken rhinoceros.[/pullquote]
Okay, that explains my intrigue, but not my reluctance. The latter stems from what I could delicately refer to as a certain lack of grace on my part. To put it more bluntly (and far more accurately), I’ve been blessed with the physical grace of a one-eyed drunken rhinoceros. So the idea of reviewing a product that would drive home all too painfully my own inclination towards inebriated rhinocerosity (hey, it should be a word) was a bit daunting to consider.
I mean, I’m as self-deprecating as the next guy (assuming the next guy isn’t Donald Trump), but even I have limits to how much self-induced humiliation I’m willing to experience.
But I’m also a just-say-yes guy (as anybody who’s ever offered to buy me a drink can corroborate), so I agreed to put the Level through its paces.
A week or so later, my Level arrived – their top-of-the-line model with a bamboo platform. My first impressions were quite positive: it’s beautifully made (in the US of A, for those who care), and has the polish and simplicity of design that one finds in Apple products (hmmm, could an iLevel be the next offering we see from those zany folks over in MacLand?).
Getting started (or, on the Level with the Keithster)
It’s pretty simple: you put this thing on the floor, and then you put one foot down on it, an action that will naturally cause the Level to lean to one side. Then put your other foot on it, and voila – you’re surfing! Initially I adopted a wide stance, but through experimentation I’ve found it’s both fun and interesting to vary the width of your stance. Interestingly, a narrow stance (i.e., with both feet close to the middle of the Level) can actually make it easier to maintain your balance.
Second impression: hey, this ain’t so bad! To my surprise (and immense relief), it’s not at all difficult to maintain your balance on this thing. And it’s kinda fun, too. I found myself purposely rocking back and forth. At first I was extremely conscious of the balancing act I was performing, but when I started focusing on my writing, the act of standing on this thing – and not falling off – became far more unconscious, much sooner than I would have expected.
[pullquote]My biggest concern – losing my balance – has turned out to be a non-issue[/pullquote]
My biggest concern – losing my balance – has turned out to be a non-issue. Despite being gifted with the rhinocerrific lack of grace I’ve previously noted, I haven’t fallen once. The range of angles the Level can reach are not terribly steep, so even if you end up leaning all the way over to one side or another, you’re not likely to take a tumble.
One of the biggest differences I noticed between using the Level and using a regular standing desk is that I tended to keep my feet in one position longer when perched atop the Level. When I’m just standing behind my desk, I’m constantly shifting my weight and moving my feet around. With the Level, my initial impulse was to focus on maintaining my balance, and accordingly, I tended to keep my feet in one position. As I became more comfortable – and more confident – I began changing my stance more often. Still, I definitely stay in one position longer when I’m “on the Level.” (See what I did there?)
Standing on the Level raises you up approximately 2 1/8″ off the ground, which may require an adjustment to the height of your standing desk. I had already marked the angle and height adjustments of my collapsible desk with silver nail polish (don’t judge – my daughter was once a teenager, so there are remnants of her more Gothic moments still to be found around the house), so I may need to choose another color – Ghoulish Green, perhaps? – to codify the correct settings for when I’m using the Level.
Also, the way this device concentrates my not inconsiderable weight in one small area approximately the size of a cereal bowl is of some concern. I think I’ll buy a welcome mat or similarly sized rug to put underneath it, so as not to wear out the throw rug that has been in my ESO’s (Extremely Significant Other’s) family for many years. FluidStance sells a mat that can be placed underneath the device, but it seems a bit pricey. As an alternative, you could probably find a free carpet remnant that would do the trick.
On a final note, I work barefoot, and I’ve found that prolonged contact with the hard bamboo can induce some fatigue (and perspiration), which should be easily remedied by donning one of my beloved pairs of Reef® flip-flops. (Hello, Reef, are you listening? I’m open to endorsement deals…) Lest anybody think I’m becoming a corporate shill, let me hasten to add that I’ll also be happy to do product testing for any distillers of Scotch or bourbon, or brewers of beers that don’t smell like holiday candles. But I digress. Let me get back to the good and bad points of this interesting new product.
- You’re getting more exercise than with a conventional standing desk. The FluidStance website cites an average increase in heart rate of 15% over a regular standing desk. While I did not measure my heart rate, I did notice I sometimes had a tendency to break a light sweat when using the Level (admittedly something that merely shrugging your shoulders can cause down here in the furnace we call South Florida). Bottom line: the heightened level of activity/motion involved in maintaining your balance definitely exceeds the workout you’d get from merely standing.
- You will definitely feel more of a “burn” in your calves than you’d experience just from standing, because of the various angles your feet and ankles assume while maintaining your balance. As a result, I’m not yet to the point where I can do much more than an hour at a time on the Level. To that end, the folks at FluidStance do preach a gradual approach, rather than full immersion, advocating “a 70:20:10 approach to movement” (in which you start by spending 70 percent of your day sitting, taking 20 percent of your time to stand on the Level, and spending the remaining 10 percent of the day participating in real-life movement like walking or running).
- Lack of stiffness in joints after prolonged “surfing.” One of the biggest downsides I’ve noticed with my standing desk is how stiff my hips and knees can become after a few hours of use. I noticed none of this when using the Level. That’s a BIG plus in my book.
- The device is beautifully made and sensibly packaged. I love the look of the natural wood standing surface, and the aluminum undercarriage is both attractive and very solid-looking. You definitely get a sense of quality from this product.
- The extra “burn” I cited above might lower the amount of time you’ll want to spend on this thing. So what’s healthier: standing at your desk for six hours, or “surfing” at your desk for three? I don’t know – I’m just askin’.
- While the side-to-side movement you’ll experience is pretty cool, the front-to-back motion can be a bit distracting because it changes how far you are from your keyboard. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s an issue you are far less likely to encounter in a basic standing desk scenario. However, the FluidStance website claims that studies have shown no increase in typing errors when using the Level. And I had no problems while typing this post.
- You’ll need something to cushion your feet from the hard surface of the Level. Shoes (or in Florida, flip-flops) are an easy solution, but if you’re accustomed to working barefoot like me, you will be aware of having made a compromise. (I think a carpeted version of the Level would be a viable product offering, in case anybody at FluidStance is listening.)
- These things aren’t cheap. The cheapest one retails at $289, and the bamboo model they sent me to evaluate will set you back $429. Frankly I think the price is a bit on the high side for a new and unfamiliar product. On the other hand, it is likely to be a one-time expense, and not that bad when you consider what a good office chair costs, much less a treadmill for a standing desk, something I’ll touch on next.
In summary . . .
The Level presents an interesting – and far more active – alternative to a basic standing desk. My overall impression is that the Level fits in a very attractive spot between a standing desk and a treadmill desk. And when compared to a treadmill desk, the significantly lower cost and MUCH smaller footprint make it a very attractive alternative, bearing in mind that it involves far less exercise. But that’s okay with me. Although I know some people who swear by their treadmill desks, I really can’t imagine finding one very practical for me, because I fear the treadmill aspect would distract me too much from my writing.
Overall, I’d give the Level two thumbs up. For people like me, who are trying to find ways to break away from a sedentary lifestyle while still doing the deskbound work that inspires us and/or puts food on our table, I think the Level represents an excellent step towards a more active lifestyle, packaged in a well-designed product that is both Zenlike in its simplicity and powerful in its potential positive effect.
For me, the Level definitely makes it worth spending some time being unstable. Okay, being even more unstable than usual.
How about you?
Would you be inclined to “surf while you write?” Or are you a “butt-in-chair” advocate? Or are you maybe one of those truly hard-core people who writes while jogging on a treadmill? Or maybe dictating into a voice-activated writing program while climbing mountains and saving endangered tree frogs? I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the Level, and on other ways to write that involve less physical inertia. Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!