Should I get a standing desk?

Thursday, August 09, 2018. Author Dr. Haran Sivapalan

Should I get a standing desk?

Once upon a time, humans spent their time moving around, hunting, gathering and farming our food.

For every 1 kJ of energy consumed in the diet, early humans likely expended 0.44 kJ of energy obtaining and preparing that food. By contrast, following centuries of agricultural and technological advances that enabled more sedentary lifestyles, modern humans expend a mere 0.27 kJ for every 1kJ consumed in the diet.

Even when viewed over a narrower time scale, humans, in particular those from Western societies, show a trend towards spending less time moving, and more time sitting.  In 1970, roughly 20% of US citizens were employed in desk-based jobs, compared to 30% in jobs involving significant physical activity (e.g., construction, manufacturing, farming).

Fast forward 40 years and it's estimated that as many as 86% of US citizens sit at a desk for 8-10 hours each working day. Add in more personal time perched behind a computer screen or steering wheel, and it clear that society is becoming increasingly sedentary.

Sitting is the new smoking

While this transition away from laborious, manual work may be celebrated as a marker of human progress, the issue is that sitting at a desk all day is hazardous to our health. The Canadian Fitness Survey, which followed 17,000 adults over 12 years, found that time spent sitting was positively associated with cardiovascular mortality in a dose-dependent pattern. In other words: the longer you spend sitting, the higher your risk of death from heart disease, stroke, and related conditions.

Just last year, a large US study of middle and older-aged adults concluded that, in particular, it was "prolonged, uninterrupted bouts" of sitting that are linked to negative health outcomes such as poorer insulin sensitivity, higher blood pressure and even loss of muscle mass. These studies, plus an abundance of others reaching a similar conclusion, have led public health experts to dub sitting as "the new smoking."

Get up, stand up

In an effort to counter the health risks of excessive sitting, many workplaces have introduced standing desks. The idea is simple: employees stand while using their screens, keyboards, and mice as usual. Compared to those sitting behind their desks, standing employees ought to engage more core muscles, have better lower limb blood flow and be subject to fewer long-term health risks. Moreover, healthier staff tend also to be happier and more productive staff.  But, if you'll excuse the pun, where exactly does the evidence stand?  

The results of the Stand-up Victoria trial, recently published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, suggest (perhaps unsurprisingly) that standing desks do indeed significantly reduce sitting time. The study, which followed 231 employees across 14 worksites in Australia between 2012 and 2014, found that those with stand-up desks sat on average 46.8 minutes less and stood up 42.2 minutes longer over the course of an 8-hour working day.

What's less clear, however, is whether this engenders any health benefits. Despite recommending them as a cost-effective workplace intervention, the Stand-up Victoria Trial found little impact of stand-up desks on employees' BMI (Body Mass Index), quality of life and number of sick days taken.

More comprehensive reviews of the literature are similarly lukewarm on the benefits of standing desks. A 2018 Cochrane Review, widely considered the gold standard of evidence in healthcare, found most studies to be of low quality, plagued by both small sample sizes and a lack of long-term follow-up. Their verdict? More research is necessary.

Treadmill desks

Of course, standing desks aren't the only option available. There are also cycle desks, where employees pedal while working, and treadmill desks, which enable you to walk or (for the more adventurous) run while earning your daily bread.

According to another systematic review published in the journal Preventive Medicine, treadmill desks show greater promise for positive health benefits. Walking while working was shown to cut blood pressure, lower levels of LDL ‘bad' cholesterol in the blood and improve insulin sensitivity. There's also evidence that treadmill desks can help with weight and fat loss.

It's not all good news, though, especially for your employers! Treadmill desks (and not standing desks) are also associated with lower productivity, an effect likely due to impaired mouse control and typing ability while walking. To minimize this, studies suggest that workers should walk at a speed between 1 and 2 miles per hour (1.6 – 3.2 km/h).

Tips for getting moving at work

Not every office worker will have the luxury of a standing, cycle or treadmill desk. So, how can you avoid being sedentary in the workplace?

Here are 5 simple suggestions:

  1. Walk or cycle to work – Your commute is a great opportunity for dynamic exercise. Rather than driving or sitting down on public transport, try to walk, cycle, run, rollerblade or otherwise locomote to work.
  2. Take frequent breaks from your desk – try standing up and going for a short walk every 30 minutes or so. It's also surprisingly easy to do simple stretches and bodyweight exercises (e.g., lunges and squats) in an office environment.
  3. Use your lunch break for exercise – rather than spending an hour sitting, eating, and looking at your phone, consider walking, going to the gym or upgrading your lunch to a ‘runch!' Even if you're sitting at a desk most of the day, there's evidence that physical activity can help to negate the effects of prolonged sitting.
  4. Take the stairs instead of the elevator – climbing stairs is a great exercise and has been shown to cut your risk of early mortality by 15%.
  5. Organize walking meetings – rather than idly sitting down around a table, some work discussions and meetings can be had while walking.

I hope you enjoyed this blog.  Please read my other articles and let me know if you have any questions.

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