A new study says standing desks don't have any benefits. Or does it?

Herman Miller's action office
© Herman Miller

TreeHugger has been covering standing desks since before they even settled on a name. We were there for the overhype- "Sitting is the new smoking" the backlash and when they jumped the shark.

Now a new analysis of twenty studies by Dr. Jos Verbeek, a health researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, appears to conclude that standing desks don't do anything at all. He is quoted in NPR as saying "What we actually found is that most of it is, very much, just fashionable and not proven good for your health." But in fact the study itself doesn't say that. It's not even what the study is about.

Angus Chen writes in NPR health news:

Verbeek says that the studies he and his co-authors analyzed came to conflicting conclusions about whether sit-stand desks reduce sitting time....In fact, there isn't really any evidence that standing is better than sitting, Verbeek adds. The extra calories you burn from standing over sitting for a day are barely enough to cover a couple of banana chips. "The idea you should be standing four hours a day? There's no real evidence for that," he says. "I would say that there's evidence that standing can be bad for your health."

But when you actually look at the studies, they don't clearly look at the benefits of standing desks as much as the use of adjustable sit-stand desks, and whether they get people standing. They say at the start:

Why is the amount of time spent sitting at work important?

Physical inactivity at work, particularly sitting has increased in recent years. Long periods of sitting increase the risk for obesity, heart disease, and overall mortality. It is unclear whether interventions that aim to reduce sitting at workplaces are effective at reducing the amount of time spent sitting.

The purpose of this review

We wanted to find out the effects of interventions aimed at reducing sitting time at work. We searched the literature in various databases up to 2 June 2015.

They conclude:

At present there is very low to low quality evidence that sit-stand desks may decrease workplace sitting between thirty minutes to two hours per day without having adverse effects at the short or medium term. There is no evidence on the effects in the long term. There were no considerable or inconsistent effects of other interventions such as changing work organisation or information and counselling. There is a need for cluster-randomised trials with a sufficient sample size and long term follow-up to determine the effectiveness of different types of interventions to reduce objectively measured sitting time at work.

That is a very different thing than NPR is implying, that standing desks don't do any good. What the study seems to say is that giving someone a sit-stand desk doesn't make them stand. Which, frankly, has been known for years; I have written:

As a full-time standing desk user, I have not been a fan of adjustable desks. They are more expensive and complicated, but most importantly, users tend to drift down to sitting position. Over time, one study found that users with adjustable desks eventually were only standing 20% of the time. I wondered if giving people the option and flexibility was such a good idea if they ended up mostly sitting anyway.

my officeLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

George Nelson of Herman Miller said "The Lord never meant a man to be immobilized in one position." The people I know who use fixed standing desks are moving all day, since if they do want to sit down they have to do it somewhere else. That's how I set up my office.

I have also written on MNN that you have to be careful applying results from studies in one country to other cultures, where people might get a lot more exercise. But the most important thing is simply that people have to move.

A new study says standing desks don't have any benefits. Or does it?
It actually seems to say that you can give someone an adjustable desk but you can't make them stand. That's a very different thing.

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