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 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 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 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 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.