Are standing desks pointless?

03.24.16 |

The dangers of sitting

The medical community has been sounding the alarm around the dangers of sitting for the last few years. I’ve written about the dangers of sitting as well, and in case you missed it, let me get you caught.

Long periods of sitting have been:

  • Correlated to an increased risk of certain types of cancers
  • Connected to significant circulation changes, even in children
  • Associated with increases in joint and back pain

In the simplest terms possible, long periods of sedentary activity are bad for you. The research is clear on this.

Standing desks to the rescue?

How to address this challenge, however, has ignited a new debate.

Standing desks move your body out of a slouched seated position and activate more muscles than a desk chair.

For many of us, we have the least amount of control over our Habits of Healthy Motion when we’re at work. If our work involves a computer screen, we have limited options for being active over an 8 hour stretch (or more) of working. To combat this problem, many people turned to standing desks. To be sure, a standing desk is not a lightning bolt of new activity in your day, but it moves your body out of a slouched seated position and activates far more muscles than a desk chair.

Recently, a new study has called into question using standing desks at all. In a study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, researchers argued that there was no evidence to support that standing desks actually worked. Their criticism is biting.

Dr. Jos Verbeek told NPR that “What we actually found is that most of it is, very much, just fashionable and not proven good for your health.”

Many of the articles reporting on this research are suggesting that standing desks have no health benefits at all. But that’s not what the research actually found or why Dr. Verbeek made the “fashionable” commentary to NPR. Verbeek and his team found that the studies on standing desk use were limited—there are relatively few of them and their methodologies are of mixed quality—and he also found that one of the biggest problems with standing desks is that people don’t actually use them.

Get up and move

Well, yeah, of course a standing desk won’t help if you’re not using it. The treadmill in the corner (the one that turned into a clothing rack) is not to blame if you don’t ever get on it. Standing desks are no different.

Verbeek goes on to add that he is unconvinced that standing is actually healthier, and here he enters contentious waters. I agree completely that we should use what we know about the dangers of sitting as a springboard for learning more about standing, but my fear is that this commentary will drive people right back into their chairs. If you’re standing, you are more likely to burn a few extra calories (every calorie counts as Habits of Health readers know). You are more likely to be mindful of your posture. And I would argue that making the decision to stand because you are concerned about your health helps to put you in the mindset of making healthy decisions, even at work.

If you have a standing desk, don’t put it away yet. For everyone else, don’t underestimate the hazards of sitting for long periods of time. If you work at a desk, get up and move as often as possible!