Are Standing Desks Really Healthier? 8 Things You Should Know Before You Renounce Your Chair
I've been using a standing desk for about three years now. At first, it was a challenge; I could only stand for a half hour or so without getting tired and wanting to sit. But once you get used to using a standing desk, there's just no going back — now I can stand for hours on end, and sometimes have to remind myself to give my legs a break. I feel restless and lethargic if I have to sit down all day. I have more energy when I stand, and most of all, I find I feel less trapped by working in an office the more I move around throughout the day.
Last year, I upgraded from a stationary standing desk and started using VARIDESK Soho, an adjustable, portable standing desk that retails at $175 (though you might be able to get your company's HR department to cover it, especially if you have back problems). I like it because I can adjust the height of my desk on different surfaces, and go from standing to sitting whenever I'm tired, without having to move my computer. Since I started standing at work, more and more coworkers have come up to me and asked me about the desk, wanting to know how it is for me. I always tell them to go for a standing desk — and several of them have, reporting it also helps their back pain.
But when it comes to standing desks, it's also important to be informed about the best ways to use one. Recently, I've been having back pain even when I'm standing, and it's made me wonder: what if my standing desk isn't set at the ideal height, or I'm standing too much? How often should I take breaks and sit to maximize the health benefits? And are there certain tasks I should do standing or sitting to help my concentration?
I did some research, and spoke with VARIDESK CEO Jason McCann, to find out everything you need to know about standing desks.
1. Sitting May Be Worse For You Than Smoking
You've probably heard that some people are calling sitting "the new smoking." That's because sitting all day dramatically increases your risk of all kinds of chronic diseases. Basically, our bodies weren't designed to sit all day, as many of us do now — which is why doing so creates a lot of health risks.
"Research has shown that prolonged, all-day sitting can lead to dramatically increased risks of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer and other chronic health conditions," VARIDESK CEO Jason McCann tells Bustle.
Exactly why sitting is so unhealthy is a complex issue, so I always point people to Lifehacker's terrifying article on the subject, which breaks down exactly how sitting affects your body: According to Lifehacker, as soon as you sit down, activity in your muscles slows down, and your calorie-burning rate goes to at-rest mode (using roughly one calorie a minute). This also affects your insulin: if you sit an entire day, you experience a 40 percent reduction in glucose uptake in insulin, which is what raises your risk of diabetes over time.
If you sit for more than six hours a day over a period of two weeks, as many of us do, the effects start getting even more scary. "Within five days of changing to a sedentary lifestyle, your body increases plasma triglycerides (fatty molecules), LDL cholesterol (aka bad cholesterol), and insulin resistance," Lifehacker reports. "This means your muscles aren't taking in fat and your blood sugar levels go up, putting you at risk for weight gain. After just two weeks your muscles start to atrophy and your maximum oxygen consumption drops." After a year of a sedentary lifestyle, you're at a higher risk of obesity and high cholesterol, and your bones are also compromised: studies suggest women can lose up to one percent of bone mass a year when they sit six hours or more per day.
Oh, and it gets worse: "Sitting for over six hours a day for a decade or two can cut away about seven quality adjusted life years (the kind you want). It increases your risk of dying of heart disease by 64 percent and your overall risk of prostate or breast cancer increases 30 percent," Lifehacker reports.
2. Exercise Can't Offset The Risks Of Sitting — But Standing For Just 10 Minutes Every Hour Can
Unfortunately, these risks can't be undone by going to the gym every day and eating healthy; it doesn't matter how much you work out — if you're sitting for prolonged periods of time, you will incur chronic side effects.
Luckily, all you need to counteract all the terrifying affects of sitting is to practice standing or walking around the office once an hour for at least 10 minutes at a time. You can set an alarm on your phone, but eventually, it will become second nature, and you'll start to feel sluggish if you don't stand or walk around.
Basically, you're trying to prevent your body from entering that seriously sedentary mode described above by creating a "mini-stress" on your body, as Lifehacker puts it. An Australian study on breaking up sedentary time backs this up: just 10 minutes of standing or walking every hour seems to help counteract those harmful effects of longterm sitting, like obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease. Which brings us to...
3. Standing Regularly Helps Prevent Obesity, High Cholesterol, Diabetes & Heart Disease
Because sitting all day is so damn bad for you, it makes sense that standing and moving more has positive effects. A European Heart Journal study found that people who stand throughout the day have a lower BMI and waist circumference, improved cholesterol levels, and lower levels of triglycerides than those who sit. This may have something to do with the fact that standing makes your body burn about 50 extra calories an hour than it would completely at rest (though it could also be argued that this has as much to do with correlation as causation — "fitter" people may also just be more likely to stand in the first place).
A Journal Diabetologia study also found that standing may be one of the best defenses against developing Type 2 Diabetes. The study looked at 2,497 participants, the majority of whom sat for at least nine hours a day. Researchers found that every extra hour of sedentary time a person sat was associated with 22 percent increased odds of developing type 2 diabetes and 39 percent increased odds for metabolic syndrome.
4. ... But Too Much Standing Isn't A Good Idea, Either
Standing all day, as any waitress or retail worker can tell you, is exhausting on your body, and you should not do it. If you stand too much, you might compress your spine, which can lead to lower back problems over time. Standing too often also "can also boost your risk for carotid arteries, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis and other cardiovascular problems since the heart has to work against gravity to keep blood flowing up from your toes," according to a U.S. News Health report.
"Whether it’s sitting all day or standing all day, it’s the 'all day' part that’s the problem," McCann tells Bustle. "What’s important is that you’re never stuck in the same position for too long and are practicing interval standing. Balance and moderation is key to proper desk use." To help with this, VARIDESK has actually created a handy app that reminds users to sit or stand for what the company suggests is a healthy amount of time.
5. You Should Aim For A "20-8-2" Ratio
Dr. James Levine, author of Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, recommends that you aim to stand at work for a total of roughly two to four hours a day. Further, he recommends a ratio of "20-8-2." That means 20 minutes sitting in a neutral posture, eight minutes standing, and two minutes walking or stretching. If you repeat that cycle throughout a normal work day, you'll get about five hours sitting, three hours standing, and some movement walking around.
That's a lot more standing than the minimum recommendation of 10 minutes every hour, but it's also totally doable.
6. It's Important To Find Your Ideal Standing Desk Height
If your standing desk is set to the wrong height, you might end up with more back pain than if you were sitting. "Everyone is different — the key is to find a position that’s comfortable for you ergonomically. For the best form, you should be using your desk at a comfortable level where you don’t have to slump or strain to use your computer or write something down," McCann says.
The site NotSitting.com recommends that "the height of your desk should generally be at elbow height. This means: as your elbows are positioned at a 90 degree angle from the floor, measure the distance from the floor to the bottom of your elbow. The desk should be built to this height." The cool thing about the adjustable VARIDESK Soho desk is that you can just find that exact height yourself, and play with it until you get the level just right.
7. Standing At Work Also Has Cognitive Benefits
The phrase "thinking on your feet" looks to have some scientific merit. A recent Texas A&M study linked standing desk use over time to a boost in cognitive skills. Study participants saw significant improvements in executive function and working memory from standing during the day, and saw a corresponding boost in brain activity due to enhanced bloodflow. A International Journal of Environmental and Public Health also found that a standing desk use can significantly boost cognitive skills like memory, concentration, and problem solving.
8. ... But There Might Be Certain Tasks You Should Do Sitting Instead Of Standing
As the Texas A&M study shows, standing desk use is linked to improvements in executive function and working memory, but what about other parts of your brain? Is it possible that certain tasks are better suited to siting?
There's not much research on it yet, but a conversation of experts about standing desks on the radio show "On Point With Tom Ashbrook" (embedded above) suggests that more focused, writing intensive work — such as editing a document, or writing a proposal — is better done sitting, while more collaborative and energized work — such as brainstorming, holding meetings, taking phone calls — would be better done standing. That said, I edit and write standing all the time, and it usually works just fine for me — so ultimately, it's up to you.