Standing Desks Not All They're Cracked Up to Be

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Scores of studies and articles have espoused the benefits of sit-stand desks on overall health, as well as the inherent damage of sitting for extended periods of time, linking sedentary lifestyle to diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. But some experts are pointing to inconsistencies in the research that endorses the use of these desks.

Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, agrees that standing at points during the workday is beneficial, but like anything else, has its limits.

“Standing desks, if you use them appropriately—that is if you use them for short periods of time and frequently throughout the day—they work out pretty well,” Hedge explains to BTRtoday. “But if you’re using them to stand all day, it’s the same thing as standing all day at a checkout counter in a store.”

Standing work is associated with greater risks of varicose veins, foot and lower back problems, and even an increased risk for carotid artery disease in men.

A Cochrane review recently called into question the benefits of standing desks. While the review found that sit-stand desks did reduce sitting time in the 20 studies it examined, the authors ultimately concluded that the studies themselves had a number of misgivings, from poor design to lack of participants, which ultimately produced inconclusive results.

Hedge wasn’t surprised at the inconsistency of the study.

“A lot of times it depends on what you’re measuring and who you’re dealing with,” Hedge tells BTRtoday. “For example, one of the factors with standing work and standing desks is what you’re wearing on your feet. There are all kinds of confounding factors that make it hard to get consistent results.”

Hedge added that the reason the studies may be found wanting is mainly due to their recent and small sample sizes.

“A lot of these studies are looking for health effects that actually may not show for relatively long periods of time,” he says. “Just because you sit down and your blood glucose spikes right after you’ve had a meal, that doesn’t mean within the next hour you’re going to develop diabetes. It may take half a lifetime of that kind of abuse to your body before you see any health problems.”

Sitting itself isn’t the issue—human beings across the globe all sit at one point or another, and it doesn’t require nearly the same amount of muscular exertion or coordination that standing does.

“It’s over-sitting that’s the problem,” Hedge explains. “When you look at how much we sit now, a lot of people are sitting for almost half the day, sometimes more than half. When you factor in sitting in the car going to work, sitting at work, sitting coming home, and sitting in the evening in front of the TV set. It’s a lot.”

The plague of over-sitting has renewed popular demand for standing desks, even though the concept has been around for more than 100 years and has been used by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.

“The first sit-stand desk was patented in 1899, so it’s not exactly a new invention,” Hedge says. “What’s happened is it’s come back into fashion, and it does this about every ten years in the furniture industry. It’s been around for along time, and it will continue to be around for a long time.”

With prices of sit-stand desks coming down and consumer demand steadily increasing, some companies have moved toward agile or health-based working. Much like a coffee shop has standing tables and a variety of sitting areas, agile work environments allow employees to move freely during their workday.

Although how you work will ultimately come down to personal preference, Hedge believes contemporary workspaces will continue adapting to the research constantly being published about the health benefits of not only standing, but moving throughout the day.

“Companies are going to have more of a variety of workplaces, and then with the mobility of technology, people are going to move between those places to do the work,” he says. “I think that’s what you’re going to see.”