Do standing desks really make workers healthier?

An analysis of 20 studies found there was little evidence that standing desks were better for employees than sitting.

Standing desks have risen in popularity at many offices.
While prolonged sitting has been proven to have negative health effects, no studies have looked at the long-term effects of using standing desks. –The Boston Globe

A standing desk may be the most fashionable way to work right now, but a recent analysis of 20 studies suggests that the health benefits are overhyped.

Published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, the analysis said that while long periods of sitting have been shown to increase the risk for obesity, heart disease, and overall mortality, it’s unclear whether interventions like standing desks are effective at reducing the amount of time spent sitting, or even whether prolonged standing is actually healthier than sitting.

Why? The authors of the analysis said most of the existing studies on the subject were too small or poorly designed to be significant, and the longest study only followed participants for six months.

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“We conclude that at present there is very low quality evidence that sit-stand desks can reduce sitting at work at the short term,” they wrote, saying sit-stand desks generally decreased workplace sitting by about half an hour to two hours per day. “There is no evidence for other types of interventions. We need research to assess the effectiveness of different types of interventions for decreasing sitting at workplaces in the long term.”

Local health experts agreed.

“We know sitting too long is bad, but we don’t know for sure standing is better so we sort of jumped the gun trying to get people to stop sitting and encouraged them to stand without any knowledge of whether standing is better,” said Dr. Sherry Pagoto, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

With such little research, Pagoto said it’s too soon for most companies to invest heavily in sit-stand desks, which can range in cost from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

Instead, it makes more sense for companies to encourage employees to be more active in general, Pagoto said, either by taking short walking breaks or exercising in the middle of the day.

Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, agreed that more research needs to be done before advocating for standing desks, and said walking more is clearly better than either sitting or standing.

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“It’s best to be frequently getting up and walking around like every 30 to 60 minutes,” Manson said. “Get up from your desk and ensure that you’re actually getting the steps and using your muscles more than you would get from standing.”

To walk more, Manson suggested workers set timers on their smartphone for every 30 minutes, or arrange for more walking meetings. They could also park further away from their office, take the stairs, or even commit to drinking more water (so they have to use the restroom more), she added.

If companies want to help encourage active behavior, Manson said they could consider initiating walking challenges among workers who use FitBits or pedometers.

For organizations that can afford to do so, Pagoto said investing in active desks such as treadmill desks or cycling desks are probably more likely to have positive health impacts on workers.

“Those types of desks actually involve getting more physical activity into the day rather than just standing,” Pagoto said. “Standing desks just seem like a really small step forward. It’s not actual physical activity. The calories you burn standing versus sitting is pretty negligible.”

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