STANDING DESK BENEFITS AND RISKS - ARE THEY WORTH THE INVESTMENT?
Full-time employees spend an average of 8.5 hours a day at work during the weekdays, according to the most recent report by The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not to mention, the average American spends over 100 hours a year commuting to and from work.
If you work at a desk, you may be all too familiar with sitting while you commute - only to then sit in front of a computer once you get to work. And let's not forget that you're also sitting to eat meals, watch television, read, play games... you get the idea. Our whole day is built around sitting! Tell me if this looks familiar:
With an abundance of medical studies pointing to the health hazards of sitting, it's no wonder standing desks have become all the rage as a way to defeat sedentary behavior in the office environment. If one could just stand more, instead of sitting all day, all your problems are solved, right?
Well, yes and no. If you've done your research, you know that standing desks aren't a miracle pill to heal a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, there is quite a bit of conflicting research on whether or not a standing desk is beneficial.
This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the research, and a deeper look into the 8 real health benefits of a standing desk.
By the end of this article, you'll understand that owning a standing desk won't magically solve all the problems that result from an overly sedentary lifestyle, but that a standing desk is an excellent tool that can help you experience real and meaningful positive health benefits.
Let's dive into the evidence.
WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT SITTING TOO MUCH, ANYWAY?
Before delving too deep into the benefits of a standing desk, it's important that we first address the problems with sitting too much. We've all heard the that "Sitting is the new smoking," but what does that really mean?
Yes, that phrase might sound hyperbolic, but it was thoughtfully coined by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, by way of trying to make an important point. True, sitting might not appear to present the acute and immediate danger of smoking - but when you study the long term effects over the course of a lifetime, you find that excessive sitting is devastating to our health.
In the exact words of Dr. Levine: "Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death."
According to the pros at Mayo Clinic and WebMD, there are plenty of reasons why sitting is considered the new smoking. Mainly, when you sit too long, you can experience problems that are as detrimental to your health - if not more so - as smoking, including any or all of the following health problems:
- Back pain
- Weight gain & obesity
- Heart Disease
- Diabetes & high blood sugar
- Depression & anxiety
- Depleted energy
- Tissue degeneration
- and much more!
There are several ways to combat the effects of over-sitting - including exercising, walking more, stretching, etc. - but there are few things you can do that are as simple and sustainable as using a sit to stand desk.
No memberships required, no discipline or motivation necessary.
With all that said, let's get into the top 8 real and verifiable ways a standing desk can be beneficial to your health and wellbeing.
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #1: EASE BACK PAIN & PHYSICAL ISSUES CAUSED BY POOR POSTURE
The first problem with sitting too much is explained well by Dr. Kelly Starrett's lectures, articles, and his book, Deskbound.
In it, Dr. Starrett explains how the invention of the chair drastically reduced the time humans spend in their natural state - standing, walking, and active - and replaced it with endless hours of sitting, that contribute to weak muscles, a lack of mobility and poor posture.
According to Dr. Starrett, sitting for long periods is detrimental because the muscles in your lower body become disengaged and unbalanced. By it's very nature, sitting causes you stop using the muscles and connective tissues in your body that support the spine. Sitting for a long time also causes your hip flexors, hamstrings and calves to shorten and tighten, as the muscles adapt to natural bend in the torso and knees (while sitting). Repeat this day in and day out, and you find yourself with weakened muscles, forward pelvic tilt, poor posture and slouching, compromised body function, and orthopedic problems like carpal tunnel syndrome, pelvic floor problems, and back and neck pain. Your body simply loses it's ability to function like it is meant to.
And the problem can be even worse for athletes and fitness junkies. Even if you train for 1-2 hours per day, it's not nearly enough to reverse the effects of sitting for several hours. And worse, all that sitting can put your body in a compromised state, ripe for an injury.
With all this in mind, and the knowledge that over 86% of Americans sit and work at their desk all day long, it's not surprising that 8 out of 10 people suffer from back pain, and that Americans spend $50 billion annually treating back pain.
When used properly, a standing desk can significantly reduce the amount of time sitting - which will help balance and engage the body's muscles, increase overall mobility, strengthen and lubricate joints, and return the body to it's natural human state. In turn, these improvements lead to better posture, less pain, and a drastically reduced risk of injury.
And think of the $billions we would save as a society, if everyone used a standing desk.
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #2: BOOST CALORIE BURN & PROMOTE WEIGHT LOSS
Can a standing desk really help you burn fat, lose weight and reduce your risk of obesity? Opinions are mixed. Take just 10 seconds to google the topic, and you'll find a fairly even mix between articles that say yes, and articles that say no. But we're not here for opinions... we want hard evidence. So what should we believe?
Standing desks absolutely help you burn more calories and lose weight, but perhaps not the way you would think...
First, let's identify the primary point of confusion. Most of the arguments against the efficacy of a standing desk on weight loss center around one simple - and flawed - argument: standing doesn't burn enough calories.
When researchers study the effects of standing desks on weight loss, they often make a direct comparison between the quantity of calories you burn sitting vs. the quantity of calories you burn while standing. For example, one recent study demonstrated that standing periodically throughout the day (at a sit-stand desk) resulted in employees burning an extra 170 calories in a day (compared to just sitting all day).
And while the authors sited their findings as evidence in favor of avoiding sedentary behavior, many others use the study to point out that a standing desk doesn't really help, because the difference in calories burned from standing vs calories burned sitting is not highly significant.
On the surface, it's hard to argue that assertion. Burning an extra 170 calories per day isn't nothing - but its probably not material enough to contribute to significant weight loss
However, it’s also important to note that these studies aren’t looking at the whole picture.
The question we should be asking is not “How many more calories do we burn while standing?” The answer to that question lacks context.
Instead, it's vital that we consider ALL of the changes that occur in the body as a result of standing and moving in front of a standing desk, instead of sitting sedentary: increased metabolism, positive hormonal changes, decreased blood sugar, and more.
To use an analogy, sitting is kind of like driving a car in first gear - never building momentum or reaching it's full potential. When you sit, the body struggles to boost it's metabolism, burn calories and maintain the function it needs to control your weight.
Add in a standing desk, and it's like accelerating your car and shifting it into high gear. Thermogenesis kicks in, giving your body the boost it needs to burn significant calories day and night - not just while standing. It also kicks all of your fat burning hormones into action.
And there are several studies to back this up, such as this study from 2014, which demonstrated a significant beneficial glucose response in office workers that alternated between sitting and standing in 30 minute increments.
Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, has also conducted his own studies focused on what he calls "Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis" (or NEAT). His research suggests that the more time you devote to fidgeting, walking, and standing during the day, the more calories you can burn. In fact, the difference can be as much as an extra 2000 kcal of calorie expenditure a day beyond the basal metabolic rate. Now THAT is significant, and Dr. Levine would suggest that the best way to facilitate NEAT in an average day, is by inserting a sit to stand desk.
It’s true that standing desks won't guarantee that you'll magically lose weight as soon as you buy one. But there is little question that a standing desk will help you get up, get moving, burn more calories, and give you the hormone boost your body needs to burn fat, and fight off obesity.
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #3: REDUCE YOUR RISK OF CHRONIC DISEASE
Weight gain and obesity aren't the only health problems associated with our modern habit of over-sitting. In fact, there have been extensive studies linking excessive sitting and sedentary behavior to our risk of chronic diseases, such as Heart Disease, Type-2 Diabetes, Cancer, and more. Let's quickly review the evidence, and assess if/how standing desks can help reduce the risk of these chronic diseases.
STANDING DESKS CAN HELP PREVENT HEART DISEASE
There have been several studies done on the adverse effects of sitting too much, and most agree that the more you sit, the higher you are at risk of heart disease.
The reason? The more you sit, the less you move. When you don't move enough, your heart doesn't get the circulation and exercise it needs to keep doing its job.
There are several studies published on this topic, but let's look at one of the more recent studies published in the journal, Circulation.
In this study, they gave participants accelerometers that tracked active vs. sedentary time (a replication method from other reviews) and tracked activity each week for 5 years.
This study found that sitting for long periods is a major risk factor for heart disease. In fact, each additional hour of sedentary time was associated with a 12% increase in multivariable-adjusted risk for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD).
When you're sitting for hours a day at work, your blood flow slows down. This allows fatty acids to accumulate in the blood vessels and can put you at a higher risk of heart disease.
Here is the good news. With the help of a standing desk, especially a sit-stand desk, you increase your high-effect NEAT movements, improving your overall heart health.
STANDING DESKS CAN REDUCE YOUR RISK OF DIABETES
There is plenty of research to demonstrate that sitting too long can lead to insulin resistance, lower blood sugar levels, and slow down your metabolism - such as this study, led by Dr. Thomas Yates. This can cause both type 2 diabetes and obesity problems (as we've already discussed).
Another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examined 47 studies on the health effects of sedentary behavior. The findings showed that more than half the average person's waking hours are spent sitting at work, commuting, watching T.V., etc. And, that this time sitting can lead to a higher risk of dying from all kinds of diseases, including diabetes.
While there are several ways to get up and moving, the primary suggestion by Dr. Yates is to simply stand more. By his recommendation, if you stand for just 2 minutes for every 20 minutes you spend sitting, you're taking an important step towards reducing your risk of Diabetes. And of course, a standing desk can be the easiest way to accomplish this.
STANDING DESKS CAN DECREASE YOUR RISK OF CANCER
There is also of plenty of research showing that over-sitting can also increase the risk of colon, breast, and endometrial cancers (among others) - such as this meta study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which states that excessive sitting may increase the risk of certain cancers by as much as 66%.
In fact, researchers from the American Cancer Society found significant results with women that spend over 6 hours or more of free time sitting. They found that they have a higher risk of getting cancer than women that spend less than 3 hours of free time sitting.
The study analyzed 77,462 women enrolled in the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort and followed them for an average of 15.8 years. By the end of the study, women who were sitting 6 hours or more a day during free time had a:
- 65% greater risk for multiple myeloma
- 43% greater risk for ovarian cancer
- 10% greater risk for invasive breast cancer, and a
- 10% greater risk for any cancer at all
...when compared to women who spent less than 3 hours per day sitting.
To reduce the risk of cancer from over-sitting, The American Cancer Society makes the following recommendations:
- Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week
- Walk more during the day
- Stand up at work or during conference calls at a standing or sit-stand desk
- Turn meetings into "standing meetings"
- Take a 1-2 minute standing or walking break every hour
Again, getting a standing desk is the perfect office addition to help minimize the time spent sitting, and reduce your risk of Cancer.
STANDING DESKS CAN REDUCE YOUR RISK OF CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE
One of the lesser known risks of excessive sitting and a sedentary lifestyle is Chronic Kidney Disease (CDK). CDK is a predecessor to several other health problems - such as anemia, bone disease, heart disease, and more - and not something to be taken likely
According to the American Journal of Kidney Disease, lower levels of sitting time are strongly associated with a lower risk of CKD. This is especially true for women over men.
Another study showed similar results. Women that reported less than 3 hours of total sitting time were 30% less likely to get CKD than women who spent more than 9 hours a day sitting.
When it comes to avoiding CKD that may result from sitting too much, the advice is the same. When you invest in a standing desk or sit-stand desk, you reduce the amount of time you sit, move around the office more frequently, and increase the amount of NEAT movements you make.
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #4: BOOST ENERGY AND FOCUS
What could you do with more energy and focus throughout your work day?
So far, this article has mostly addressed how standing desks help fend off potential life-threatening diseases, but avoiding illness isn't the only reason to invest in a standing desk.
Standing desks also promote wellness by boosting energy, focus, and critical thinking.
A recent NCBI study found that 87% of participants reported more considerable energy throughout the day when using a standing desk.
The reasons participants felt more energy from using a standing desk are some of the same reasons that help people avoid disease.
Standing up and moving around has a positive hormonal effect on the body that helps regulate energy and blood sugar. When your blood sugar is stable, it enables you to maintain higher levels of energy and avoid the "afternoon crash."
Additionally, standing up over sitting down all day stimulates circulation in the body. When your circulation is better, it sends more oxygen to your brain and encourages neurogenesis in regions of the brain associated with critical thinking.
Another recent study demonstrated the link between prolonged sitting and brain atrophy- particularly in the hippocampus - a part of the brain that is essential for memory function.
Standing desks aren't just a good investment for avoiding disease. They are a significant investment to help you maintain high levels of energy, feel better throughout the day, and hone your critical thinking skills.
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #5: REDUCE STRESS, ANXIETY & DEPRESSION AND IMPROVE MOOD
An often overlooked, but significant benefit of standing desks is their ability to help improve mood and reduce the effects of anxiety and depression.
If you've ever felt anxiety or depression while sitting in your office, you are not alone! In fact, it may even be safe to say that a majority of our work force experience depression related feelings while at work. It also turns out that there is a scientific reason behind the anxiety and depression you experience from sitting too long at work.
Extended time spent sitting is strongly linked to symptoms of depression - particularly for workers that also spend extended time in transit. One study from the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity examined whether time sitting in different contexts was associated with more anxiety, depression, and stress.
The results showed that sitting time spent on a computer was associated with more severe depression and anxiety - while time spent sitting in transport was associated with even more severe anxiety and stress.
Once again, the results suggest that reducing overall sitting time, time sitting at a computer, and sitting while in transport could improve mental health.
Another study confirmed that standing desks have a positive effect on overall well-being, when participants reported less stress and fatigue while using a standing desk for 1-2 hours per day. In fact, once the desks were removed, most participants observed that they previous improvements were negated within 2 weeks.
So, the research clearly shows that sitting at work boosts stress, anxiety, and depression and that overall mood can be improved by switching to a standing desk.
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #6: SLOW AND REVERSE TISSUE DEGENERATION & BONE ATROPHY
Earlier in this article, we addressed the research of Dr. Starrett, and how the invention of the chair replaced much of the standing and walking humans have traditionally done, with sitting for long periods. Especially, for those that work at a desk all day.
As it turns out, sitting all day causes more physical problems than just poor posture and back pain. According to Starrett, excess sitting also causes atrophy and degeneration of bones and tissues - particularly in the leg and glute muscles. When your muscles and tissues degenerate, your risk of spine-injury, soft-tissue and joint injury, and osteoperosis all increase significantly.
Ironically, one of the side effects of this condition of degeneration is MORE BACK PAIN, as this study points out.
The introduction of a standing desk helps keep all the body's muscles engaged and active, and helps keep more weight on the bones that become unsupportive while sitting. The result is stronger tissues and bones, lower risk of injury, and a better feeling body. Particularly in the joints!
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #7: INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY
This might be a great time to mention that standing desks are not a new fad. In fact, some of the world's greatest thinkers were known to stand up while they worked, such as: Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Ben Franklin, and Ernest Hemingway.
These world leaders and top creative thinkers enjoyed standing desks because standing helped get their creative juices flowing and boosted productivity.
But, you don't just have to take Jefferson's and Franklin's word for it (although, not sure why you wouldn't want to). There are plenty of modern studies that suggest standing desks lead to an increase in productivity.
One recent study evaluated sit-stand desks and reported better health and improved work performance for office workers that spent more time standing.
The study included a year-long trial with 146 office workers. 76 participants were given sit-stand desks, along with coaching and reminders to stand more often. The other group didn't get coaching and worked at their desks as usual. The researchers measured standing time throughout the study.
At the beginning of the study, participants sat 9.7 hours each day, but over the years, people in the control group spent less and less time sitting.
The study also measured mental health and job performance in the study. By the end of the study, the results showed that people using the sit-stand desks were more productive, better engaged, and performing far better than those at sitting desks.
But the most famous study on the topic of standing desks and productivity in 2015, when a call center implemented standing desks for 6 months, and documented a 46% increase in productivity, by introducing a standing desk.
STANDING DESK BENEFIT #8: LIVE LONGER
With all the previous benefits of a standing desk in mind, it's clear that standing desks improve wellness, help workers improve brain function and productivity rates, and help prevent chronic diseases. All these benefits naturally lead to a longer life for office workers and students.
However, some studies have measured the benefits of standing desks have on life expectancy directly. The results are quite positive and show that standing desks actually may help you live longer.
One critical study found that the average life expectancy in the U.S. would increase by 2 years if sitting time were decreased by only 3 hours a day.
Another study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health included 230 desk-based workers and got them to stand while working, sit less, and move more. The results showed making this small change nation-wide might be costly, but it would also save 7,492 "health-adjusted life years."
DISADVANTAGES AND RISKS OF A STANDING DESK
It’s true that standing desks aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are some disadvantages to purchasing a standing desk. First and foremost, standing desks can be more expensive than a regular sitting desk. Although, the average cost of a standing desk as come down considerably in the last 5-10 years as they have grown in popularity. There's also the fact that you probably already have a desk, so there's an added cost if you're going to upgrade to a sit to stand.
There are some other disadvantages to standing desks. These disadvantages are typically are only experienced if the office worker is misusing the desk, but they are important to address. Here are some situations where misusing a standing desk could be detrimental to your health:
STANDING TOO LONG IN ONE POSITION
There are several studies deomonstrate that standing too long can also have many negative health effects - and it's important to not lose site of this risk. However, let's be careful not to use this as an excuse to avoid a standing desk, as many "expert" articles would claim it should be.
The fact is that 99% of standing desks have the ability to adjust between sitting and standing. So while excess standing CAN be a significant risk to the body and mind - as long as you make sure to alternate between sitting and standing periodically, there is no reason why you should experience any of these ill-effects.
POOR FOOT AND JOINT SUPPORT
If you stand on hard ground for any extended period of time, you put your body at risk of joint discomfort and foot pain. Poor shoes and heels can have a similar effect.
But this is an easy problem to overcome. To combat this issue, we strongly suggest using an anti-fatigue mat to counteract these effects, and to protect your feet, joints and spine.
Standing up isn't a cure-all for posture, and in some cases it can just make the issue worse. In particular, many people have a tendency to lock their knees and hunch forward while standing. But there are two simple fixes for this issue:
- Make sure your monitors are at eye-level. We strongly recommend using a monitor arm to adjust your monitors to your perfect height
- Shift, sway and move. You want to avoid locking your knees, and light movement will help with that. You can also consider adding a topo mat, to encourage that movement
Indeed, standing at your desk won't cure all your health problems, especially if you're not taking the time to walk around, change positions, and move around. However, it's also clear that the benefits still far outweigh the risks, and most of these issues are highly avoidable.
HOW TO USE A STANDING DESK
Now that we've addressed some of the potential disadvantages of a standing desk, let's talk about how you can avoid any problems by using your standing desk appropriately.
Remember, a standing desk isn't a magic wand that will heal a sedentary life. However, if you use a standing desk correctly, you will experience positive benefits.
Here is how to get the most out of your sit to stand desk:
ALTERNATE BETWEEN SITTING AND STANDING
Too much sitting can be detrimental, and so can too much sitting. The solution is simply to alternate between the two positions and move around the office. Let your body be your guide to tell you when you should sit and stand, but here are some ways to know when you should make a change:
- Start out the day standing
- Sit when your body feels tired (don't over-think this)
- Stand again as soon as you feel ready
- Use natural breaks to get back to standing (restroom breaks, phone calls, lunch, meetings, etc.)
DON'T JUST STAND... MOVE
Dr. James Levine offers the best advice when it comes to getting the most out of your standing desk. Don't just stand, but move around as much as possible. This includes:
- Shifting your weight around often
- Fidgeting as much as possible
- Stretching at your desk
- Resting one foot on an elevated surface or footrest
- Taking any opportunity to walk around the office
- Using an active seat, instead of a chair
MAINTAIN GOOD POSTURE
The next secret to experiencing health benefits from a standing desk is to make sure your posture is in check. This includes never locking your knees, keeping your glutes and core engaged, and standing tall with your head held high.
Nail your ergonomics
Finally, take the time to make sure your office environment is ergonomically appropriate. This includes:
- Use an anti-fatigue mat to cushion feet and joints
- Make sure your monitors are at eye level (use a monitor arm if necessary)
- Have your arms should rest at a 90-degree angle with elbows at your side
When push comes to shove, standing desks are not a magic pill. They will not magically solve problems that result from leading a sedentary lifestyle. However, standing desks do offer real benefits to health and well being that makes them well worth the investment—several times over.
Just imagine the social benefits we would experience if everyone started using a standing desk at work—lower obesity rates, lower costs of healthcare, happier and healthier workers, and greater overall productivity.
If you're ready to take the plunge yourself, or for your company, please know that we're here to help! We know there are lots of options out there, but we're ready to answer your emails or phone calls, to make sure that doesn't stop you.
Good luck, and I hope you'll give a standing desk a try.