Standing Desks and Our Sedentary Lifestyles
Standing desks – are they beneficial? Do they benefit our health and get us moving more? What is a 9-5 seated day doing to our health? Should we be standing for 8 hours? We dive in (or rather stand up) and investigate!
What is a standing desk?
A standing desk is exactly that, a desk that you stand at rather than sit at to either write, read or work on your computer or anything else that you traditionally may have done in a seated position at your desk.
So what is so wrong with our sedentary life?
Before we look at some of the potential benefits of working at a standing desk, we need to investigate some of the negatives associated with working at a seated desk and living a sedentary life.
Our increasingly sedentary lives are not doing our health any favours. Data collected from observational studies in the USA and Britain suggested that on average adults spend approximately 60-70% of their waking time engaged in sedentary activities such as computer work, TV watching or motorised transport. (Smith et al, 2014, pg. 1)
Peddie et al. (2012, pg. 358) describe that a sedentary lifestyle has been ‘reported to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and all-cause mortality.’ This risk association is still present, even amongst those participating in moderate-high physical exercise or activity. This indicates that various levels of physical activity does not fully protect against the risks associated with prolonged periods of sedentary time, such as working in a desk job.(Peddie et al, 2013, pg. 358)
Whether it be watching TV, surfing the web on a tablet or working at a desk – being seated for extended periods of time can come with a host of negative health effects.
Below is a summary of some of these negative health implications.
Decreased Caloric Expenditure
- Sitting for long periods burns very little energy. Even standing without moving can increase the amount of energy expended – somewhere in the vicinity of 10%-50% according to Studebaker and Murphy.(2014, pg.43)
Back and Neck Pain
- According to Studebaker and Murphy there has been some evidence of a link between sitting and increased levels of disk pressure in the lumbar spine as well as potential for increases in neck pain associated with long periods of sitting, although results were inconclusive. It is suggested that poor posture could be partially to blame as it increases the demands of postural muscles in these areas. (2014, pg. 43)
Increased Thromboembolytic Events
- Seated positions reduce lower extremity muscle contractions reducing venous return to the heart and venous stasis (stagnation of flow) results. This reduction of lower extremity venous return increases the risk of thromboses to form in the veins. These then have the potential to break free and travel to the brain or lungs.(Studebaker & Murphy, 2014, pg. 44)
- ‘Healy, Levin and Perrin (2010) found that professional occupations such as clerical, managerial and information technology positions were at an elevated risk for deep vein thrombosis’.(Studebaker & Murphy, 2014, pg. 44)
Obesity and Diabetes
- Higher triglyceride and fasting insulin levels are associated with long periods of sitting and are risk factors for pre-diabetes. (Staiano et al, 2014, pg. 215)
- Numerous studies that indicate a positive association between high sitting time and obesity. Studebaker and Murphy reviewed that Hu, Li, Colditz, et al. (2003) reported that for every 2-hour increment of sitting at work there was a ‘5% increase in obesity and 7% increase in diabetes’ and went on at say that the correlation between obesity and sedentary behaviour is present ‘even if an individual participates in regular physical activity’(2014, pg. 44)
Wow – so as you can see, there are some very concerning health implications from living a sedentary life! This is where the implementation a standing desk time and more movement may be a beneficial as preventative health strategies.
What are the perceived health benefits of a standing desk?
Large technology workplaces such as Google and Facebook are some of the big name companies who have implemented sit-stand enabled seating in the workplace as a way of trying to prevent ‘sitting disease’ – a term coined by Levine. The introduction of sit-stand workstations was to improve workers physical activity, reduce healthcare costs and improve productivity. Perceived benefits can include everything from weight-loss, reduction in neck pain, less brain fog, more energy and feelings of improved well-being.
- Using a standing up lowers lumbar disk pressure when compared to sitting erect or sitting in a slouched position.(Studebaker & Murphy, 2014, pg. 44)
- The use of standing desks has been shown to reduce musculoskeletal discomfort. (Studebaker & Murphy, 2014, pg. 45)
- An ‘active’ work station (a standing desk combined with a treadmill or bicycle) when used as a replacement for 2 hours of seated desk time per day, has been demonstrated to help workers lose between 19 – 30 kg per year. (Studebaker & Murphy, 2014, pg. 45)
- Fidgeting, shifting of weight and other smaller movements associated with the use of a standing desk increases energy expended. Just simply standing with no additional movement, can lead to an increase of 10%-50% according to Studebaker and Murphy.(2014, pg.43)
- Breaking prolonged sitting has been shown to have a positive impact on glucose and insulin levels in healthy adults.(Peddie et al, 2013, pg. 363)
- A higher ratio of standing to sitting has been shown to be associated with lower levels of total and liver adiposity.(Smith et al, 2014, pg. 4)
Any negatives or dangers?
- Cost can be a negative, as some of the models for standing desks can get very pricey, see notes below.
- Do not wear heals when using a standing desk.
- As is the case with sitting for too long – long periods of standing or standing with poor posture can leave you with musculoskeletal issues, aching shoulders, arms and feet or even numbness in the feet.
- Prolonged standing can increase the risk of varicose veins and increased risk of hardening of the arteries.
- According to Cornell University Ergonomics, standing puts added pressure the circulatory system and the legs and feet.
- Standing desks should not be used without anti-fatigue mats.
- Standing is more tiring than sitting and increases fatigue.
- Make sure that the desk and monitor are set at correct height for the user or you could end up with neck flexion or musculoskeletal issues.
How often to you need to go/use?
A standing desk should be used in conjunction with sitting, as standing all day for long periods can also have negative health implications, as noted above. It is a combination of the two and with the addition of regular micro-breaks that provides the best health benefits.
Switch between a sit /stand desk combination and at intervals that are comfortable for you. It may be that you can only stand up initially for perhaps only 15 minutes before getting tired, at this point, sit for a while before attempting to stand again. Only do what is comfortable for you and stop if you suffer discomfort.
Periodic standing, sitting and moving is of most benefit to your health. It is recommended that you move every 30 minutes for 1 -2 minutes, which may include some stretching or walking. Micro-breaks are much more beneficial for your health and need to be done regardless of your daily exercise routine, as it is frequency of movement throughout the day that is the key. Just going to the gym after work or running daily is not going to cut it if you still sit down for 8 hours a day. Move at least every hour!
What is the cost?
The cost of a sit/standing desk depends on various features. They may include manual, electronic or pneumatic controls to allow the option of changing between seated and standing.
Prices can start for a little DYI project converting your current seated desk to a standing option for about $25 up to about $2000 a ‘bells and whistles’ version. Don’t forget you will also need to invest in a good mat!
What should be your standing desk height and set up?
Ideally, the height of your stand up desk should generally be at elbow height or just below. This means that your elbows should be positioned at an almost 90 degree angle from the floor. Measure the distance from the floor to the bottom of your elbow and that should be the height of your desk. For example, for a 5’7″ person, the desk should be 41 inches tall. The screen should be raised and positioned at your eye level so that you’re not tilting your head down and overextending the neck muscles, as this can cause just as much strain as a poor sitting position. The monitor should also be about 20-30 inches away from your face. Check out the image from Tinkering Monkey and this standing desk height calculator.
If you have a laptop, you will need to either get a separate keyboard or a second monitor to set yourself up. This is a handy station you can get for your regular table to turn it into a stand up desk. Look around in your local office supplies and furniture stores as well as online.
Is the cost worth it?
I think the benefits of adding some ‘standing time’ to your daily routine, especially if you have an office job far outweigh the cost – is an essential aid to modern life for practicing preventative health.
12 Tips for implementing more movement in your work day.
- Rather than having seated meetings – organise ‘walk and talk’ meetings.
- Set a reminder on your phone or on your computer to alert you to get up and do some stretching or movement every 30 minutes or hourly.
- Alternate between a seated and standing desk (or a sit/stand desk).
- Even when at your desk, stop working for a few moments during the day and rotate your ankles and wrists in a clockwise motion followed by anticlockwise rotations.
- Work your way through the muscles in your body – contract them, holding the squeeze for a few moments and then release.
- Take the scenic route (the long way) back to your desk.
- Walk to ask a colleague a question rather than sending an email.
- Park your car further away in the car park.
- Walk around if taking phone calls on your mobile phone.
- If you have them – use the stairs!
- Get of the bus or metro a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way.
- Stand at the bar or the bar tables rather than searching for an empty seat.
Your personal experience and verdict – would you continue utilising it?
We recently turned a traditional seated desk in our home office to a standing desk (at $25 DIY job!) and I know spend my days changing it up between the standing desk and the seated desk.
I must admit the first few times using it was quite difficult to get used to. I was stretching and bending my back, planting my feet wide apart and even leaning on the desk – all trying to get comfortable. Learn from my mistake…take regular breaks from your standing desk and don’t try to ‘out-do’ your husband’s time for staying at the desk.
Once I realised that I needed to change it up more, and it actually was not even beneficial for me to be standing at it all day – I now thoroughly love using it! I find that when I am standing I always seem to be doing some sort of small movement and if you are like me and work with some music on…it is easy to get your groove on when standing and working!
I take regular breaks from work every hour or so and I go for a quick walk around and I now regularly swap between the seated desk and standing desk. I can’t say I have ‘noticed’ any beneficial effects of this routine yet, but I am hoping there is some. I will report back again in a few months and see if there were any other changes. Until then however, I will happily continue to use my standing desk.