Are Standing Desks Bad For Your Health?


Image credit Herman Miller

Standing desks have been around for a long time; I keep showing pictures of Herman Miller's Action Office from the sixties in the hope that they will introduce their standing desk. Even in 1958, their designer Bob Propst could write: "Compelled by lack of choice, we are forced to conduct most office activity in a sitting position. The result, as medical studies and insurance data make clear, is a steady decline in vitality, energy, and general body tone."

But over at LifeHacker, they make the case that we should Forget the Standing Desk; You Just Need to Move Regularly. They quote a page the egonomics team at Cornell University.

We quote a bit more of the CU Ego recommendation:

The Perils of Sitting

Sitting for more than 1 hour has been shown to induce biochemical changes in lipase activity (an enzyme involved in fat metabolism) and in glucose metabolism that leads to the deposit of fats in adipose tissue rather than these being metabolized by muscle, and extensive sitting also relates to heart disease risks, so people are advocating standing to work because this use more muscle activity (burns about 20% more calories). These changes happen in both fit people who regularly aerobically work out and also unfit and obese people, so regular exercise doesn't address this.



The Perils of Standing

But, 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.

As Lifehacker notes, the Cornell people suggest this bottom line:

The bottom line:
Sit to do computer work. Sit using a height-adjustable, downward titling keyboard tray for the best work posture, then every 20 minutes stand for 2 minutes AND MOVE. The absolute time isn't critical but about every 20-30 minutes take a posture break and move for a couple of minutes. Simply standing is insufficient. Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles. 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 further away from the building each day).

So the key is to build movement variety into the normal workday.

But the Cornell team also tested Electric Height Adjustable Work Surfaces (EHAW), many of which are coming onto the market now, and say that Workers [are] more productive when using adjustable tables.

We found that the computer workers who had access to the adjustable work surfaces also reported significantly less musculoskeletal upper-body discomfort, lower afternoon discomfort scores and significantly more productivity," said Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell and director of Cornell's Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory.

Full study pdf here

The page that Lifehacker cites is from 2004, and does not link to any studies other than the one that examined the benefits of the adjustable desk. It doesn't quote any studies of standing desks. Since then, Dr. James Levine has done considerable work on how dangerous sitting down actually is, almost a lethal activity.

There are other studies that appear to bluntly say: Sit Down, Die Young.

There is evidence that standing all day can cause problems, but most of the studies, including the one that says the risk of carotid atherosclerosis increases by nine times, were looking at employees of companies trapped at the same task, like a machine or a checkout at the supermarket, all day long. At risk jobs include postal workers and sorters, machine operators and hairdressers. I don't think many of us working at standing desks are doing it from 9 to 5 all week long. I certainly don't; I move about the room when thinking, I have a stool that I use after a long run when I just don't want to stand, I have a sofa when I want to read. Oh, and the latest research on carotid atherosclerosis? Losing weight helps. Guess what happens when you work at a standing desk.

I obviously have an axe to grind here; I think standing desks are wonderful. I don't think a 2004 one-pager without backup research from the Cornell University Ergonomics Web should scare people away from them.

More on Standing Desks
Are Standing Desks Healthier Than Sitting?
More on The Benefits of Standing Desks (And How To Build One On The Cheap)
Alternatives for Standing Desks
Sitting Down Makes You Fat; More Reasons To Get A Standing Desk
The Standing Desk: Why Hasn't It Caught On?

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