Standing Desks – Are they really worth the hype?

“Sitting is the new smoking.” If you work in an office, then chances are you’ve heard this a few times in recent years. You’ve also probably heard that standing desks are the newest and greatest way to combat prolonged sitting at work – but is this just clever, fear-based marketing or are they really that good for you?

Lots of research has shown that sedentary behaviours (staying in the same position for a prolonged period of time), such as desk-based work or TV time, puts you at a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, metabolic disease, mental health disorders and musculoskeletal disorders (such as low back or neck pain). It has also been consistently shown that this association is significant regardless of how physically active a person might be – meaning that even if you meet the daily requirement for vigorous exercise, sitting for a large portion of the day is likely to still be detrimental to your health. So, standing at your desk seems like a pretty logical solution, right?

The issue with substituting sitting for standing is that standing is still a sedentary behaviour – in fact, a study has found that an hour of standing burns only 88 calories, compared with 80 calories from an hour of sitting and 210 calories for walking. As such, the association between standing and poor health outcomes is just as significant as sitting. Standing is a slightly more ideal position because there is less forward bend through the low back and hips than in sitting, however it also causes increased fatigue and much more load through the knees, ankles and feet. Which means that, overall, prolonged standing is really no better for you than prolonged sitting. It also means that the assumption that sit-stand desks are beneficial for your health because they reduce sitting time is misguided.

A 2018 systematic review of all available research into reducing sitting time at work found that, although sit-stand desks generally do reduce sitting time, there is very limited research to suggest that they improve health outcomes. Further research is needed before anything conclusive can be said about the effects of sit-stand desks on improving your well-being.

From a physio’s perspective, the potential benefit of a sit-stand desk is not the standing but the moving! It is shown consistently that even low levels of walking are linked with lower mortality and we know that general movement helps distribute load evenly around the body, improves joint health by preventing stiffness and increases blood pumping around the body from your muscles contracting and relaxing. So, if a sit-stand desk means that you spend more time transitioning between sitting and standing, or if more standing time increases how much you walk around the office, then they may be of great benefit in preventing pain and injury (and potentially wider health risks too).

So moral of the story – GET MOVING! The jury is still out on whether or not sit-stand desks have significant benefits over regular sit-desks, but regardless of your work station setup it’s hugely important to take regular moving breaks and avoid those sedentary behaviours (even if you are exercising regularly outside of work). For useful tips on ways to incorporate more moving into your day without compromising productivity, check out this article from the Australian Physiotherapy Association – Feeling the slump? 11 tips from a physiotherapist for maintaining health and wellbeing when returning to work.

Matt Bensted (Physiotherapist)