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Is prolonged standing at work good or bad?

October 8th, 2011

Travis Saunders at Obesity Panacea has an interesting post describing a new study of schoolkids using standing desks for an entire school year. Among the findings: the kids chose to stand rather than sit 91% of the time; the kids burned 10.8 more calories per hour when standing; and the overweight kids in particular burned 22.8 more calories per hour. All good stuff — and more importantly, this seems like a great way to minimize the serious problems like heart disease and metabolic problems that seem to be associated with too much time spent sitting down.

But is standing up all day really a good solution? It used to be that occupations like check-out clerk were seen as bad for health because employers forced cashiers to stand up all day. Even a cursory glance at the research finds  plenty of studies linking prolonged occupational standing to lower back pain, varicose veins and nighttime leg cramps, and chronic venous disorders more generally.

I’ve definitely been considering the idea of switching to a standing workstation — and the cheapest option would definitely be a simple, non-adjustable desk. But it’s not clear to me that standing all the time is any better than sitting all the time. I suppose you could simply use a high chair or stool to sit at your standing desk. But I’m leaning toward the conclusion that the investment in an adjustable desk may be worthwhile.

  1. Richard Ayotte
    October 8th, 2011 at 20:59 | #1

    I’m a computer programmer and it drives me insane to sit too long so I do 15 to 45 burpees every hour.

  2. October 8th, 2011 at 22:00 | #2

    I’ve read some mixed studies. Clearly it is better for burning calories, but an anatomist friend points out humans are ill designed for standing and other problems occur. Store clerks, chefs and others who stand alot have more medical issues (she claims) than the normal population that are releated to standing, She claims the best approach is sitting in a very well designed chair and getting up at least every hour for a bit of exercise.

    Some time ago she sent this link from the work ergonomics group at Cornell

    http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/CUESitStand.html

    I’d love to see good studies that compare the various approaches.

    Currently I’m taking her advice and getting up frequently (about every 30 to 45 minutes) to move around wtih some reasonable aerobic exericse for a five minute burst every few hours.

  3. Margaret S.
    October 9th, 2011 at 02:09 | #3

    I work at a standing desk in my home office. I expect that I would not be as vulnerable to the problems reported in the studies you mention as the subjects obliged to work under conditions of prolonged standing. I don’t generally stand still, but walk in place, sidestep, do different kind of leg lifts, etc. as I work. I can also step away from my desk and walk around any time I want. This freedom to move is likely not available to people who must stand still as they serve the public, such as cashiers and clerks.

  4. Juha
    October 9th, 2011 at 06:51 | #4

    Look at the kid in the photo. Her weight is on one leg and upper body leaning right make pelvis abducted heavily on left. Those 10 extra calories goes with a price.

    Adjustable table and all kind of chairs is the way to go. Stand for a while, then sit on a swiss ball. Also have a nice ergonomic chair for longer sessions. And drink a lot of water, because it takes you for a little walk every hour.

  5. October 9th, 2011 at 13:14 | #5

    In the Letters section of the current Running Times, one reader suggested a cheaper solution: Put your computer on a little 10-inch-high plastic step stool! It certainly sounds like a good idea, if you just want to try it out.

  6. October 9th, 2011 at 17:21 | #6

    Standing for kids is not the same as standing for adults. Especially for adults who grew up mostly sitting. It’s the same as running barefoot: if you grow up with it, it’s natural and good. If you didn’t, it’s hard to get used to and potentially even harmful.

    But I agree, the adjustable desk is good. It’s also important to shift dominant legs as you stand. Or you can sit on an exercise ball sometimes. And there’s nothing wrong with spending *some* time in a comfy chair.

  7. alex
    October 9th, 2011 at 18:50 | #7

    Interesting stuff — thanks for all the comments. The Cornell link that @steve provided is thought-provoking. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone strongly arguing against standing AND adjustable work stations. I find some of the claims surprising. For example:

    “The problem with standing is that when you raise desk height for keyboard/mouse use you need to also raise screen height above the desk or you get neck flexion.”

    I don’t really understand why this would be true. If I stand up and adjust the height of my desk properly, wouldn’t the relative positions of my head, arms, keyboard and monitor stay the same compared to sitting with good posture?

    Also:

    “In our field studies of sit-stand workstations we have found little evidence of widespread benefits and users only stand for very short-periods (15 minutes or less total per day).”

    That’s in pretty stark contrast to the study of schoolkids that Travis described, in which the kids chose to stand 91% of the time! As @Daniel pointed out, kids and adults are very different. Still, you have to wonder if other factors in the set-up and study design were influencing people not to stand up, because 15 minutes a day isn’t very much.

    Personally, now that I’m aware of this issue, I spend a lot more time in my home office standing or pacing when I’m thinking. I now have two phones on my desk: a wired one that I used for interviews when I’m recording, and a wireless one that I use to talk while wandering around the apartment if it’s a call where I don’t need to be taking notes.

    At a very rough guess, if I had an adjustable desk, I imagine I’d still chose to sit 2/3 of the time or more. But that would still add 2-3 hours a day of standing time — and ideally that time would be spread out through the day, so it would break up those long multi-hour blocks that I would otherwise spend motionless. (I do get up and do a few jumping jacks now and then, but I’m not yet hardcore enough to do burpees every hour!)

  8. October 9th, 2011 at 19:31 | #8

    Todd Hargrove had a good post on this recently where he noted that they key thing is not standing vs sitting, but sitting vs moving. It is movement that is important.

    http://toddhargrove.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/is-a-standing-desk-a-good-idea/

  9. Colin
    October 10th, 2011 at 21:36 | #9

    Why don’t you do the walking treadmill workstations that shows like 20/20 or 60 minutes reported on a few years back.

  10. October 10th, 2011 at 22:13 | #10

    Thanks for the link Chris.

    Alex,

    Like you, I was very interested to see that the kids stood way more than the adults. 90% is way more than I would have guessed. I was also interested to see that the teachers thought it helped with ADD. By coincidence I spoke with a client yesterday who had recently switched to a standing desk partly as a way to deal with his ADD.

  11. October 11th, 2011 at 01:07 | #11

    Thanks for the shout-out, Alex!

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a good idea to stand 24/7. When I use my standing desk at home, I’d estimate that I stand for roughly 75% of the time, and sit for the rest (by either moving my laptop to my kitchen table, or lowering my standing desk). The kids in the study I described stood for nearly 100% of the time in home-room, but they didn’t report whether what % of the school day that accounted for – I’m assuming there was still plenty of sitting in other classes and during lunch/recess.

    In the end, I think the key thing is to give people opportunities to stand/move when they feel like it, rather than forcing them to be sedentary.

  12. Amby Burfoot
    October 11th, 2011 at 11:56 | #12

    Alex: It’s a bit pricey but I can vouch for this desk-mounted, adjustable laptop desk. I have one at my job at Runner’s World. It’s a very solid piece of machinery, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do: Allows you to move smoothly from sitting to standing, and back, in about 5 seconds. I may buy one for home soon.
    http://www.ergotron.com/Products/tabid/65/PRDID/379/language/en-US/Default.aspx

  13. alex
    October 11th, 2011 at 16:09 | #13

    Very cool — I’d never seen one of those. And it’s probably a more realistic (and versatile) upgrade than a full-fledged adjustable desk for someone like me, who is still several years away from settling down in one location. Even better is the fact that one of the models is optimized for laptop-plus-extra-monitor, which is the setup I’m currently using.

    @Travis: Thanks for the clarification — didn’t realize that the school study was just homeroom. And I think we’re on the same page: a set-up that doesn’t force you into one position at all times, and makes it easy to wander away for a second, but still allows you to relax when desired, seems optimal.

  14. Monisha
    October 12th, 2011 at 16:01 | #14

    I bought a geekdesk adjustable desk for flexibility over the past summer; i would guess i spend 60-75 percent of my time standing, during which i sway, shift weight, and otherwise move a little bit. I have found it to be helpful in attentional focus and extremely useful in avoiding the hunched shoulder and neck pain i used to have. So i’m a convert for sure, but it did take some time to become accustomed to the desk and i did have to get used to working in a standing position.

  15. alex
    October 12th, 2011 at 19:43 | #15

    Cool, thanks for the info, Monisha. That amount of standing (60-75 percent) sounds like a reasonable balance — and much higher than what the Cornell researchers reported. Perhaps an important prerequisite is getting buy-in from users. Someone who goes out of his or her way to purchase an adjustable desk is far more likely to use it than if their boss (or an external researcher!) suddenly takes away their chair and gives them a standing desk.

  1. October 11th, 2011 at 03:06 | #1