Standing desks: the jury’s still out

The workplace is often partially blamed for our sedentary lifestyles. Amidst the growing evidence that sitting is bad for our health, “sitting is the new smoking” has become a popular adage.

So it’s not surprising that standing desks emerged as a trendy solution. Standing would burn more calories, get us moving, and improve our health. In fact, in 2018 standing desks were identified as the fastest-growing benefits trend in a survey released by the Society of Human Resource Management.

The standing desk craze began in 2013 when a policy against sedentary behavior adopted by the American Medical Association encouraged greater use of standing workstations to promote a healthier workplace. The desks can cost between $500 to $1,500, and many employers are using them in their cadre of benefits to recruit and retain workers. But is this based on scientific evidence, antidotal assumptions, or simply commercial exploitation?

Studies

While the research is limited, the conflicting results fuel the debate. Some argue that there is little proof standing desks are better for workers who sit in front of a computer all day. A highly-cited 12-year study reported in the Journal of Epidemiology of 7,000 Canadian office workers found that people who often stood at work were nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease as opposed to those that sat more often.

In Feb. 2018 a small study was published in Ergonomics that analyzed the potential effects of standing for a long time. The researchers studied 20 people standing in front of a desk doing tasks for approximately two hours. They found discomfort “significantly” increased in all body areas and reaction time and mental state deteriorated, although creative problem solving improved.

A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2016 that examined sit-stand desks concluded, “It remains unclear if standing can repair the harms of sitting because there is hardly any extra energy expenditure.”

Yet, a study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology looked at whether standing burns more calories than sitting and found that standing for six hours a day would burn an extra 54 calories a day. Stretched out over a year this would equal a loss of about 5.5 pounds. Cleveland Clinic wellness expert, Dr. Roizen, said this benefit is about the equivalent of eight minutes of walking for women, and about 14 minutes of walking for men per day.

Another study in the August issue of the Scandinavian Journal Of Work, Environment And Health that included more than 230 Australian desk-based workers, says the introduction of standing workstations would save 7,492 “health-adjusted life years” in the prevention of obesity-related diseases.

Led by Elizabeth Garland of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, along with the Center for Active Design and Perkins + Will, a study concluded standing desks reduced sitting by about 15 percent. Furthermore, adjustable workstations “may also have social and mental health benefits concerning job satisfaction, coworker communication, and work efficiency.” Although the numbers were not statistically significant, the anecdotal information is interesting

An earlier 2014 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that adjustable desks (stand or lower to sit) reduced sedentary time by more than three hours a week. It also increased workers’ sense of well-being and energy, while decreasing fatigue and appetite.

Another study published in 2017 in the International Journal of Networking and Virtual Organizations looked at software professionals. It suggested standing instead of sitting workstations result in only modest increases of physical activity, do not have an effect on mental alertness, actually tilt the stress-recovery balance towards stress, but decrease musculoskeletal strain in the neck and shoulders, although increasing it in the legs and feet.

More issues

Some ergonomic experts purport that the modest benefits gained by using stand/sit desks actually tilt to the negative side when the desks are not set up or used properly, which is all too common in the workplace. When not properly adjusted, serious postural problems and injuries continue. If the height of the standing desk is incorrect, shoulder and neck pain arise just like sitting.

When employees begin using standing desks, they’re gung-ho – it’s new and exciting. They’ll push themselves and stand for the whole day. Prolonged standing can cause harm to the back, legs and feet. And soon the standing desk has the same fate as the treadmill at home, gathering dust. The idea is to add movement and variety into the day.

But, it’s not an exercise program. Some suggest a 20-minute walk offers more long-term health benefits. Others point out that our brains just perform some tasks – like those that require fine motor skills – better sitting down.

Conclusion

The bottom line seems to be that more research is needed and that standing desks are not an end-all cure. Many of the studies are plagued by limitations in protocols and small sample sizes. Sedentary lifestyles, work-related pain, and fatigue are complex problems; standing desks are not the solution, but they may be part of it.

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