It feels very wrong to be writing an article about standing desks, while sitting down. Today I will probably spend around 10 hours sitting, and if you add to that the eight or so hours I’ll spend sleeping later on, that’s approximately 18 hours of being sedentary.
Sitting down as much as this is clearly no good for us, and some studies suggest that those who sit all day live around two years less than those who are more active. While some of us do our best to keep active outside of work, there is growing evidence to suggest this won’t undo the damage done by sitting at a desk all day.
To help combat this “prolonged sedentary time”, as researchers call it, some have turned to standing desks, or even active desks. While this may seem a recent and slightly odd trend, standing desks are steeped in tradition. Winston Churchill wrote while working at a special standing desk, as did Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin. Some professions such as artists and architects have also relied heavily on standing desks throughout the years.
Evidence to prove the health benefits of standing desks over seated desks is too scattered to reach a definitive conclusion. Nevertheless there are some interesting studies worth pointing to, which go some way towards showing that a period of standing each day could help to balance out the damage done by sitting.
The physiological benefits
One such study was by the University of Chester in 2013 (the first of its kind in the UK), whereby a team of researchers asked 10 people who worked at an estate agents to stand for at least three hours a day, for a week. Participants were asked to wear an accelerometer to record how much moving about they were doing. They also wore heart rate monitors and had glucose monitors that measured their blood sugar levels constantly, day and night. At the end of the week, the data exposed some striking differences between sedentary and standing time. For example, blood glucose levels fell back to normal levels after a meal far more quickly on the days when the volunteers stood than when they sat.
Additionally, heart rates were around 10 beats per minute higher during times of standing, which equates to the burning of 50 calories more, per hour. While this may not seem like a lot, if an employee was working at a standing desk for three hours a day for five days a week, that would add up to 750 calories burnt. Over the course of a year, that would be 30,000 extra calories, or around 8lb of fat.
Dr Buckley, who led the study, explains:”If you want to put that into activity levels, then that would be the equivalent of running about 10 marathons a year, just by standing up three or four hours in your day at work.”
In a separate study, a team of Canadian-based researchers investigated 23 active desk studies to draw some conclusions on how standing and active desks impact both physiological health and psychological performance.What they found overall was that active or treadmill desks led to the greatest improvement in physiological outcomes including blood glucose control, HDL cholesterol levels (aka “good” cholesterol) and body size, while standing desk use was associated with just a few physiological changes.
Impacts on psychological well-being
Within the above study, the impact standing desks have upon work performance and productivity was also considered. The researchers found that within seven studies of standing desks, totalling 220 participants, there was very little impact on typical work tasks, such as typing. In one study, employees who used a sit-stand workstation for four hours a day during one work week had no significant difference in characters typed per minute or typing errors made when standing.
An additional study worth looking at is the Take-a-Stand Project, which was designed to reduce prolonged sitting time at work for employees with sedentary jobs in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the research, participants received a sit-stand device designed to fit their workstation, which they used for four weeks. At the end of the experiment the group were asked several questions about specific benefits of alternating between a seated and standing position. Results indicated that 87% felt more comfortable, 87% felt energized, 75% felt healthier, 71% felt more focused, 66% felt more productive, 62% felt happier, and 33% felt less stressed as a result of having the sit-stand device installed at their work stations. Notably, following the removal of the sit-stand devices, vigour and mood returned to baseline levels, and self-esteem decreased after removal of the devices to below baseline levels.
It would be unrealistic to expect that everyone could stand while they work, and many would resist it. But there are certain benefits that can be had from alternating between the sitting and standing position.
In the future, as the workplace becomes a more flexible space, and as evidence mounts for the benefits of active working, it seems feasible to expect greater choice in workstation design, with standing desks being on offer in addition to more traditional seated desks. But in the meantime, small adjustments can be made to break up prolonged sedentary time within the workplace. So the next time you need to discuss a matter with a colleague, get up and walk to their desk, instead of sending an email!