Is Standing Really Better Than Sitting at Work?

Moving, not just standing, may be a healthier solution at work. (Photo: Jack Frog/Shutterstock)

There have been so many news stories recently about how bad sitting is for our health. Studies have even shown that it could be a factor in some cancers. Researchers almost universally agree that sitting around in an office all day could be slowing killing us. As someone who writes a lot every week, I've been unnerved by these reports because I realize how much time I spend in a chair every day.

Because of all the attention on sitting vs. standing, there are all kinds of standing desks for sale, and whole offices have converted to them with employee health in mind.

The problem with standing desks

But now some health experts are worried that people are getting the wrong impression. Standing may not help you significantly compared to sitting. A Boston Globe article discusses this dilemma. "But occupational health specialists worry that office workers may have gotten the wrong message that standing in one place, rather than sitting at their desk, will help them shed extra pounds, improve their hearts, or stave off other negative effects of too much sitting."

"Studies haven’t yet determined how much standing helps healthwise," said Dr. I-Min Lee, an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who has studied the risks of sedentary behavior. "In population studies, researchers haven’t been able to determine whether the health benefits of reduced sitting time stem from moving around more or from standing still."

The article points out that calorie burning is about the same for standing and sitting, though some experts believe that standing at work encourages people to move and walk around more. An October 2018 study analyzed 146 employees at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust in England and discovered that those who stood periodically at work and walked around instead of sitting all day reported a better job experience. They suffered from less job-related fatigue, less anxiety and higher quality of life.

So is there a solution for the office worker (or for work-at-home writers who tend to sit a lot)?

Here are a few thoughts.

Treadmill desk

treadmill desk in office
A treadmill desk is a great exercise option for when you're too busy at work to take a walk around the office. (Photo: Pure Geekery/Flickr)

One secretary I know got permission to have a treadmill desk (as well as her regular one) in her office.

I know authors who have writen entire books while slowing walking on a treadmill. If you have the coordination (and finances and room), this seems like an ideal solution because your body is kept in motion. Even for those who can’t type while slowly walking, you can use it for voice emails, phone calls and online business meetings.

Some experts suggest that every hour you take a short walk through the office, or, even better, do a quick workout. Even doing something as simple as 20 squats can help loosen the body up, and get your heart rate up. Judd talks about this idea here when discussing "burst exercises.” Not only are these exercises office friendly, but some fitness experts now think they're better than long cardio workouts.

Balance balls

woman sitting on balance ball
A balance ball can help improve your balance and posture. (Photo: Air Images/Shutterstock)

Combining quick movement throughout the day with a balance ball as a chair may also be helpful. MNN's Lauren Walker goes over some of the great benefits to a balance ball. "You might be familiar with these large rubber balls from gym classes, but used in an office they can help mitigate some of the aches you get from a regular chair. They help keep all the small muscles in your hips active by requiring micro-movements as you sit. Some of the balls come with a stand so they don’t roll. These are a good option if balance and stability are a problem. They give you a softer surface to sit on, which helps the sitting bones from getting sore. If you can do without a stand, the benefits increase as all the twitch muscles in the lower spine and hips will be working constantly, but subtly, to keep you balanced. This brings increased blood flow to the hips and legs, keeping you stronger and healthier."

Check out her article about alternative office set-ups for other great ideas.

Get moving

What it boils down to is this — we were never meant to be sedentary (whether by sitting still all day or standing still all day). Any way that we can encourage ourselves to get moving will help, and for those of us whose jobs require a lot of desk work, this is especially important.

So, what should your goal be? Alan Hedge, a design and ergonomics professor at Cornell University, recommends that you sit for no longer than 20 minutes at a time and stand for no more than eight minutes at once. He recommends taking a two-minute walk twice an hour as well. That’s a pretty big order, but the good news is that office workers who follow these recommendations (or similar ones) find that it helps keep their minds active, not just their bodies, and it actually improves work performance.

It seems like moving more is win-win solution with both health benefits and better on-the-job function.