What You Should Know Before Using a Standing Desk

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The past few years have seen a mounting public health campaign against sitting down, aka "the new smoking." Remaining sedentary for large chunks of the day, research shows, corresponds to chronic orthopedic problems, poor cardiovascular health and an overall shortened life expectancy, even for people who get regular exercise.

In an effort to get through the daily grind without heading to an early grave, a growing number of Americans are trading in swivel chairs for standing desks. Yet while standing 9 to 5 has become undeniably trendy, the health advantages of spending 40-plus hours planted on your feet rather than your ass aren't necessarily cut and dry.

Stand for longevity, not for weight loss. There is some evidence that people who stand more live longer, and researchers have reported a 5% to 7% higher risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes with each two-hour increase in daily sitting time. The life expectancy-related health benefits of standing, however, aren't well-understood, explained John Schuna, a professor of exercise and sports science at Oregon State University.

Standing does appear to boost metabolism incrementally, but Schuna said scientists don't really know why. While people do expend more energy (i.e., burn more calories) from standing in place than sitting down, the difference is too slight to account for a longer lifespan. Schuna said there are probably metabolic pathways that we don't yet understand that help make the connection. Scientifically, we're just not there yet.

Overall, standing is still fairly sedentary. To combat the health effects of long-term sitting, Schuna says treadmill desks are a better bet (for anyone with access to one). Working and walking can add up to 45 minutes of light-intensity exercise a day, said Schuna, which translates to about 100 calories.

Keep changing positions. Nonstop sitting can cause a range of orthopedic issues, including sciatica, peripheral nerve pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. But so can standing all day, said Janice Fletcher, an ergonomics specialist at University of California, San Diego. Standing for hours on end comes with its own aches and pains, like swollen ankles, as Quartz's Gwynn Guilford reported. People can hunch over and crane their necks while sitting, standing or even walking. One of the biggest mistakes office workers commit, Fletcher said, is positioning themselves too far above their computers, tablets or smartphones, regardless of their desk setup. A keyboard should sit at elbow height, and a screen should be roughly parallel to a person's face.

"From a strictly ergonomic standpoint," said Fletcher, "the key is adjustability [in a desk], and to allow people to alternate between sitting and standing. There's nothing magic about standing."

More important than the desk you use, according to both Schuna and Fletcher, is making sure to move around and change positions throughout the workday. It may not add too much time to your life, but it could make the rest of it better.

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Theresa Fisher

Theresa writes for ScienceMic. A Brooklyn-based journalist, she likes to write about health, human and animal behavior, and justice. Her work has appeared on Salon.com, JJIE, and The Atlantic.com.

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