The Dangers of Sitting at Work — and Standing

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Standing desks are in. Once the province of a few dynamic individuals like Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Donald Rumsfeld (O.K., two out of three ain’t bad), the stand-up desk is spreading to the world of corporate drones. And for good reason — there’s a growing body of medical evidence that hours of uninterrupted sitting can be surprisingly bad for your health.

  • A 2010 editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that those who sit for prolonged periods have a higher risk of disease than those who move a muscle every now and then in a non-exercise manner, such as walking up the stairs to grab a cup of coffee.
  • Researchers at the American Cancer Society found that even if you exercise nearly every day, those health benefits can be undone if you spend the rest of your time on your keister. (More at TIME.com: Is Running Barefoot Better for You?)
  • Scientists at the University of Missouri have found that the act of sitting seems to shut off the circulation of a fat-absorbing enzyme called lipase.
  • A study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that sitting for long stretches, more than six hours a day, can make someone at least 18% more likely to die from diabetes, heart disease and obesity than those sitting less than three hours a day.
  • Scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana analyzed the lifestyles of more than 17,000 men and women over about 13 years, and found that people who sit for most of the day are 54% more likely to die of heart attacks.

Fifty-four percent! That’s an attention-getting stat, and it’s helped push corporate drones and coders into using standing desks, or — for the truly ambitious — treadmill desks that allow you to walk very slowly while you work. (TIME’s Belinda Luscombe did a typically hilarious piece on trying out a treadmill desk in 2008.) (More on TIME.com: Has Work Got You Burning the Midnight Oil? It Could Be Bad for Your Heart)

It’s easy enough to buy a new standing desk — see a selection here — or you can try to convert an existing desk. Switching to a standing desk can take a little adjustment, especially for your feet, but many of those who’ve tried it say they’ll never go back to sitting down.

Like many health trends, however, standing desks can cause problems if they’re taken too far. For one thing, not every researcher has found that stand-up desks are a cure-all. Scientists in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined 17 studies on occupational sitting and cancer, and found little to no connection. And some experts in occupational health worry that hours of uninterrupted standing could be bad for your body. (More on TIME.com: Walking While Working)

Alan Hedge, who directs the Human Factors and Ergonomics research and teaching programs at Cornell University, told me that switching to a standup desk can be risky, especially if it’s done incorrectly:

Standing to work has long known to be problematic, it is more tiring, it dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy.

The performance of many fine motor skills also is less good when people stand rather than sit. We have tested computer use when sitting and standing in different ways. The problem with standing is that when you raise desk height for keyboard/mouse use you need to also raise screen height above the desk or you get neck flexion.

Also, for standing computer work, the computer fixes the person’s posture, there is greater wrist extension and pretty soon people end up leaning which also compromises their wrist posture, thereby increasing the risks of a musculoskeletal disorder like carpal tunnel syndrome.

In field studies of so-called sit-stand workstations, Hedges has found little evidence of widespread benefits for users — and that’s only for very short periods of actual standing. He also notes that the use of stand-up desks tends to rapidly decline after about a month — most likely because people don’t actually want to be standing all day. (More on TIME.com: Can You Multitask? It’ll Get Tougher With Age)

Hedge does acknowledge that sitting for hours at a time, uninterrupted, is not good for you. So he advocates a middle way — use a sitting desk with proper ergonomic posture, but make sure that about every 20 minutes you stand up and move around for a brief period of time:

Research shows that you don’t need to do vigorous exercise (e.g., jumping jacks) to get the benefits; just walking around is sufficient. So build in a pattern of creating greater movement variety in the workplace (e.g., walk to a printer, water fountain, stand for a meeting, take the stairs, walk around the floor, park a bit farther away from the building each day).

It may not be as sexy as a stand-up desk, but Hedge’s advice is probably better for your body. Besides, does anyone really want to stand up all day at work? Ask a waiter how that works out.

16 comments
JomerJSimpson
JomerJSimpson

All this psuedo science is interesting. There are statistics about sitting down causing this or that, but seriously, isn't it just as likely that people who are already unhealthy are more likely to be sitting around all day?

We have studies saying standing up is a strain on the sciatic nerve, and this is just as bad as sitting cross legged...

In saying that, Bhuddist monks live for 80+ years with almost no incidence of the kind of heart disease this study talks about. And they spend up to 20 hours a day sitting. In fact a study by Marc Luy (Vienna Institute of Demography) showed over a 40 year period, that the life expentancy was 5 years longer than the rest of the population. And they are sitting cross legged on a hard floor most of the day.

A study in Denmark found a higher incidence of work related hospitilaisation (due to standing) from varicose veins compared to the rest of the workforce. With more than 20% of all cases in workers that stood all day. This was a study across 12 years.

Where am i going with this? Do what is comfortable for you. Don't stand at work all day if after 2 hours you feel uncomfortable and fatigued. Don't sit behind a desk all day if after 2 hours your back hurts. I'm gonna see what the options are for a horizontal workstation. Maybe a floating desk over my Sealy Posture Plus ?

ugoburo
ugoburo

No doubt that standing at work will burn more calories than sitting. You can refer to the following study for a detailed demonstration: http://www.cehd.umn.edu/kin/research/lihp/publications/Reiff%20JPAH%202012.pdf . We at www.ugoburo.ca  are all working with the new Humanscale Float table and we have seen an unprecedent raise in our team productivity and general well being. The possibility to easily alternate from sitting to standing and standing to sitting is definitely the key for us.  

jonrhaider
jonrhaider

Call is placebo, but  I switched to a stand-up desk about 3 months ago and so far it's great. I wake up less drowsy, and my legs are stronger (I can tell when walking up and down the stairs to the office).
Within one week, I realized I needed a mouse pad that has a wrist cushion, a new anti-fatigue floor mat, and new comfy shoe inserts. I got those three things, and it's been great.
Granted I'm an engineer, so while I stand to use the computer most of the day, I occasionally have to sit to generate hand drawings or calculations.

LaurenMiller
LaurenMiller


I wrote and recently posted a blog, Standing While You Work at Church Hill Classics http://www.diplomaframe.com/blog/tabid/178/entryid/362/Standing-While-You-Work-at-Church-Hill-Classics.aspx  


I hope you have the chance to take a look.  

I wanted to say that I mentioned the link to this blog - The Dangers of Sitting at Work - and Standing - on my blog. 

If you’d care to make a comment about the blog, please do.  It would be greatly appreciated!


All the best,

Lauren Miller

Partner Marketing Specialist

Church Hill Classics   594 Pepper Street, Monroe, CT  06468

terlynn4
terlynn4

I have been using a standing desk for a several months now, and I have a coworker who has done it for about a year and a half. Both of us have seen huge benefits, including increased metabolism and weight loss, increased focus, and increased energy level. I've done extensive reading and research (like most people who made this switch), and I am convinced that the "hazards" of standing all day are due to improper setup, not the act of standing. I stand on a 1" ergonomic mat designed to take the impact off my heels (unlike a waiter in a restaurant walking on hard floors or someone in retail... been there, done that, and it's entirely different). With a high-quality mat (far superior to the standard industrial ones) and the appropriate posture, the majority of standing problems are avoided. I don't get tired, and I'm still comfortable on my feet after an entire 8-10 hour day of standing, with no more breaks than I took before.

I also make a point to move around regularly. I have a portable elliptical at my desk (my alternative to a treadmill desk) which I use for short periods in the morning and afternoon while reading email, documents, etc., and I also sometimes stand in various modified yoga poses (lower half only) while working, which stretches my legs and keeps blood flowing. I am careful about my posture throughout the day, not leaning forward, and having my desk/keyboard/monitors at an ergonomically appropriate height and distance from where I stand.

If you're doing it right, standing is incredibly beneficial to one's health, and it doesn't take long to start seeing some of the short-term benefits. I also agree with most people that a sit/stand combination can be beneficial, but some of us do not have that option due to the expense involved in such a setup.

LorneEvje
LorneEvje

Say it with me, "Living can be hazardous to your health...!"

AlexandraMarie
AlexandraMarie

I have an electronic stand-up / sit-down desk at work. I stand when I want a stretch and sit when my legs feel tired. I go up and down a few times a day. Interesting article, but I think the bottom line should be - listen to what your body tells you. If you've been sitting for a few hours and need a stretch, do a loop of the building or go for a coffee run. If you're standing and your legs feel tired, then sit. When we're not working we don't really concentrate on these options. We stand when we want to stand and sit when we want to sit. Work should be the same.

jp-workstations
jp-workstations

There are definitely pro and cons to standing desks. I would agree with Dr. Alan Hedge in that switching to a stand up desk can be risky if when you get tired you start to lean on you arms and your posture is incorrect. Standing all day is not good for you either.

There are benefit as well. I’ve compiled a resource focusing on Repetitive Strain Injuries in particular how to prevent RSI at work, with a focus on ergonomics. Please take a look here: http://blog.jpofficeworkstations.com.au/2013/03/how-ergonomics-minimises-computer.html

Cliff-Rich
Cliff-Rich

Yep, Love my standing desk, so much so that we started to build them in Southern California.. if anyone is interested, we have free shipping to the lower 48 for a limited time http://standeeco.com

NatalieGrigson
NatalieGrigson

Thanks for this post! I've been trying to spread the word about standing at work ever since I started doing it a few months ago. At work I use a NextDesk adjustable height desk and I've really noticed a difference-- my energy is better, I'm more productive, less tired, feel healthier, and I even have less of an appetite (weird, right?)

But I've also noticed that standing still all day feels almost just as bad as sitting all day (almost, but not quite!) The key, I think, is moving around, standing, and sitting. That's why I like having the option to move between standing and sitting with my NextDesk. I just push a button and it moves up for standing and then down to whatever height I need to take a "sitting break."

And plus it looks cool. If you're interested, check it out on their website: http://www.nextdesks.com/

Thanks again for the post.

Natalie 

HltyOfficeSpc
HltyOfficeSpc

I have worked as a waiter, and the days I stood around seemed very tiring on my legs and back.  The days I was busy running around were tiring but I don't recall hurting. Days spent sitting are the worst of all three.  So if you're asking this former waiter, I'll take moving over sitting.

www.healthyofficespace.com

HltyOfficeSpc
HltyOfficeSpc

I'd like to see a survey done to examine why "the use of stand-up desks tends to rapidly decline after about a month."  I suspect it is not just because people don't want to be standing at work.  They may not be standing efficiently, they may not have set up a comfortable workspace, or maybe they find a physical limitation preventing them from standing at work.

I also think we need to find an alternative to interrupting work every twenty minutes to stretch.  That is going to result in a sharp decline in productivity.

FrankOhara
FrankOhara

Standing seems more healthy than sitting, but I agree with the line that supports walking. I've been using a traedmill desk for a while, and I've lost weight and feel more energetic (on the days I don't use the treadmill, it actually gives you a pretty good workout if you use it for hours a day). I've documented my weight and kept a diary of sorts on my blog here if anyone is interested: www.treadmilldeskdiary.com

willowreed
willowreed

@NatalieGrigson i disagree. i work in retail, and my shifts are 8 hours.  there is not enough rest and my knees get sore and the bones in my feet are fracturing. it is really awful, so i disagree with you that standing is so awesome. it isn't. 

willowreed
willowreed

@FrankOhara i suggest you get a job at the local best buy or somewhere. go on. you stand there, waiting for time to go home. i guarantee you will be in insane pain by hour 4.