Are standing desks good for you?

10 May 2019

Standing or sit-stand desks have been championed as a way of reducing how much time we spend sedentary. For many of us, a sedentary lifestyle – meaning that we sit for long periods of time each day – is commonplace. If we’re not at work sitting at our desks, we’re sitting on the bus or in the car home. And what’s more, people who spend lots of time sitting at work are more likely to spend an increased amount of time sitting in their spare time too.

Leading a sedentary lifestyle is thought to be linked to health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. So the idea that we can reduce some of the time our employees spend sitting at work by using sit-stand desks is a promising one. However, the evidence around whether this intervention positively affects employees’ health and wellbeing, and to what extent, is somewhat still out for debate.

Here, we look at some of the proposed benefits of sit-stand desks and the evidence behind them. We also provide information on current recommendations for protecting the health and wellbeing of desk-based workers.

Burning calories

Part of the appeal of standing desks is that standing can burn more calories than sitting down and so, in theory, can help achieve a healthy energy balance. However, the reality is that standing doesn’t burn that many calories. It also doesn’t count as physical activity, which we now know is needed to help combat the adverse effects of sitting.

What’s more is that research has shown that individuals may need to take part in high levels (around 60–75 minutes) of moderate intensity physical activity each day to counteract the effects of sitting down. This is more than the recommended activity levels from Public Health England of which only 66% of men and 58% of women in England alone currently meet.

Healthier muscles, bones and joints

Lower back pain is a big problem for desk-based workers. It’s thought that varying your posture, for example by sitting and standing throughout the day can help to reduce lower back pain and other muscle, bone and joint problems.

It’s possible that employees may find standing tiring or uncomfortable, which is why it’s important that they vary their position throughout the day. Your employees should neither stand nor sit for long periods of time.

Public Health England recommends desk-based workers build up to having at least two hours of standing and light activity (for example, walking) in their working day. They recommend gradually increasing this to a total of four hours over time. If your employees start to feel tired or uncomfortable, encourage them to change their posture or go for a short walk. If this doesn’t help, suggest that they rest, for example by sitting, in a way that relieves any discomfort. Whether sitting or standing, always make sure that your employees position their screen and other equipment correctly to prevent bad posture.

Cardiovascular health and diabetes

Some studies have shown that standing rather than sitting can improve markers of cardiovascular health and diabetes, with the most promising effects seen over a longer period of time. However, it’s not clear whether these effects can be directly linked to standing more or whether other factors, such as a change in someone’s diet, are also at play. Overall, more high-quality and long-term studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Other forms of active work-stations, such as those that require employees to move, for example by stepping, may also be more effective at improving these health markers than standing alone. This is relevant as it aligns with our understanding that physical activity is important to combat the adverse effects of sitting down.

Work performance

According to studies, standing rather than sitting doesn’t affect work performance. In fact, standing may even peak your employees’ interest in the task at hand and increase alertness. However, not all of the available research agrees.

Aamena, a doctor and Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK, shares her experience of using a sit-stand desk and how it impacts her productivity:

“I regularly use sit-stand desks and find that switching between sitting and standing helps to keep my productivity and energy levels up. When starting a new piece of work, I also find that changing my position helps me to re-focus my attention to the task at hand.”

Although evidence around the use of sit-stand desks is evolving, current advice from Public Health England is that they are recommended to help break up seated work. Spending lots of time sedentary isn’t good for your employees’ health and wellbeing and it’s recommended that you remind them of this. It may also help to share other ways your employees can keep active at work and reduce the amount of time they spend sedentary. Lauren Gordon, Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK shares her top tips:

  • Encourage employees to take their meetings standing up (whether in person or on the phone). You could also suggest employees have walking meetings outside of the office.
  • Encourage your employees to take short, active standing breaks, like walking around the office for five minutes once an hour. This won’t affect their productivity – research shows it actually boosts mood, reduces appetite and doesn’t affect focus or attention. Some research suggests microbreaks like these should be more frequent at every 30 minutes, but be guided by what’s right for you and your employees.
  • Promote the use of lunch-breaks wisely and away from the desk. This could mean attending a gym class or taking a 20-minute walk outside. Not only does being active raise our heart rates, but what’s more is that being outside can have a whole host of other positive effects on our wellbeing.
  • Encourage employees to be active whenever possible. Whether that’s cycling their commute, or taking the stairs instead of the lift, these behaviours should be the norm.
  • Help your employees to make more active decisions by using prompts in their environment – this can be through software, emails or signs, or personal wearable devices. Employees may receive a simple reminder to ‘stand up and move’, or a warning that ‘prolonged sitting is harmful’. Research shows that these prompts can be effective at reducing total sitting time.
  • Finally, if sitting for extended periods cannot be avoided, encourage employees to do even small movements and stretches at their desk. Research shows that fidgeting (moving the legs around) while sitting down at a desk can help to reduce negative vascular effects.

“In summary,” says Lauren, “sit less, move more, move often!”

Sources

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