Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Lately, the idea of giving up your sitting desk for a standing desk has become a popular idea. The early studies on standing desks reveal that they can be beneficial, but they also have their drawbacks. Keep in mind as we cover this subject, that standing without moving is only marginally better than sitting without moving. So if you are thinking that the world will move, the clouds will clear, the sun will shine and the birds will sing because of this change, you may be in for a surprise. Although the birds will likely sing, they do that.
First off there are no clear guidelines established for the use of a standing desk. While there is no doubt that long periods of inactivity are bad for you, there are also no long term studies on standing all day at a desk either.
As I’ve said, there’s little doubt that sitting too much is bad for your health, but is it sitting or inactivity? Is standing for long periods of time any more active or productive than sitting? Not really. In addition, studies have actually found strong associations between low back pain and standing occupations, such as cashiers, bank tellers and production line employees, but not personal trainers or exercise physiologists, huh?
Standing still for long periods is thought to negatively affect your leg muscles, tendons and other connective tissues, and may even cause an increase in the frequency and severity of varicose veins.
A Scandinavian study found that standing for long periods of time increases carotid atherosclerosis, a marker of heart disease. Other studies find that prolonged standing places significant pressure on the joints of the hips, knees, ankles and feet, which in turn reduces normal synovial cushioning and increases intra-joint pressure. This combined effect can lead to more inflammation, more wear and tear and more joint pain. Obviously, more pain leads to less activity and that would contribute to an increase in the incidence of obesity and health issues. So, since the whole idea of a standing desk is to help resolve these issues, we may not necessarily accomplish the goal by such a small transition.
Other studies find that prolonged standing leads to a different kind of stress. While sitting increases disc pressure, Muscles kept in a constant standing position quickly become exhausted and can result in pain and swelling in the lower back, legs, ankles and feet.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) muscle fatigue and musculoskeletal disorders account for 33% of all worker injuries and illnesses.
While work station ergonomics plays a key role in injury prevention, rest breaks can also be helpful for those involved in standing occupations. It would appear that the period of time spent standing does have bearing on the rate of injury. Muscle fatigue onset occurs more commonly after 5 hours of standing and the fatigue from that standing persists for more than 30 minutes after the end of the work day.
For this reason many professionals advocate a sit-stand station. A station in which the user can choose two different positions based on fatigue, productivity and precision of work required; however, reviews of these stations do not appear to reveal massively favorable responses.
One review found that sit-stand workstations did not reduce worker productivity, but also did not increase it either. Three of the reviewed studies found increased productivity when workers used sit stand stations, four reported no impact on the productivity of workers, and one reported mixed results.
What we find is that regardless of whether you sit or stand at your workstation, you should take frequent breaks in order to offset any repetitive injury. During those breaks stretching the shortened muscles would be a good idea.
For some people quick breaks come naturally, while others may need an automated reminder, but rest assured, those breaks may reduce risk. One study found that after just two weeks of using a frequent break program employees experienced less upper limb and back discomfort.
You could also migrate to a desk with a slow moving treadmill attached to it. One study presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego found that previously sedentary office workers who walked slowly at a treadmill desk for two hours each workday for two months significantly improved their blood pressure and slept better at night. The down side of course is that studies find a greater degree of errors in typing activities and slower typing overall, which of course affects productivity. That same study found lower cognition scores in treadmill walkers versus people sitting, which was surprising.
And then there’s compliance. One small but significant study swapped out half the sitting desks for treadmill desks in a large insurance company. The results indicated that people did not use them as much as they planned to, and often they would use them in the off position. Those who did keep using them found only an increase of about 1,000 steps per day, far short of the 10,000 goal.
One Study did find that people who use walking treadmills lose weight, lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and have better cognition, but larger studies have failed to reproduce these results consistently due to compliance.
Then we are still left with the ergonomics of it all. Sitting, standing, moving, sedentary, the ergonomics of the work station are still vital to the success of the user. The Correct desk height and computer screen position are fundamental for improving comfort and minimizing injury risk in the office regardless of whether you are sitting or standing. That means that the elbow of the user should be approximately 90 degrees and the computer screen level with the eyes and 20-28 inches from your face.
Obviously, laptops are not ideal for long term work related use since the screen and the elbow angle cannot be coordinated without looking down or reaching up.
Anti-fatigue mats are commonly used in jobs that require extended periods of standing, such as working on a product line or at a counter. These mats reportedly combat standing fatigue by encouraging subtle movements of your leg muscles. This improves blood flow and reduces overall discomfort. Studies show that people who stand for 2 or more hours per day report less discomfort and tiredness when using anti-fatigue mats. The mats also help with leg problems and lower back pain.
Another change that can be made is to the keyboard and mouse. The ideal wrist angle when standing is slightly more extended (tilted upwards) than when sitting. But a failure to consider this difference in those who frequently swap between sitting and standing has been shown to lead to greater wrist pain and discomfort. Changing the shape of the mouse or keyboard is also helpful, as is use of a wrist support.
At the end of the day, it is repetitive motion that appears to cause more issue than anything else. A walking treadmill if used properly can alleviate a significant cardiovascular risk, but the 1.5 mile per hour speed can hardly be called fitness inducing. Perhaps at the end of the day we should take our lessons from countries such as Japan.
Japanese companies recognize that one of the key drivers of a company’s success is the workers themselves – their physical and mental health and thus their ability to be productive. As such they actually schedule exercise breaks during work hours.
One of the first experimenters with this approach was Honda. When Honda hired new employees for the assembly line, instead of putting them to work immediately, they enrolled them in two weeks of exercise classes designed to simulate the movements they would need to perform on the job. Their on-the-job accident rates dropped significantly, the workers’ productivity increased, and the employees logged far fewer sick days.
Other Japanese companies who followed suit and scheduled on-the-job exercise sessions for all workers found the same thing. Productivity increased, the number of accidents and sick days fell, and over time, the cost of health care dropped.
The reality is that corporations should encourage their employees to exercise if they want productivity to increase and sick time to decrease. Allowing employees the first hour of their day to exercise, and promoting frequent movement and stretch breaks lowers the risk of injury and improves the employee health significantly. Other factors include limiting people to a shorter day (6-7 hours) and mandating vacations. While this sounds counterproductive, it eliminates burn out, fosters creativity and improves work place productivity.