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Standing Desks: The Good and the Bad as Backed by Science

Published January 16, 2021 (last updated on April 29, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Content Writer

cheerful male office worker using standing desk in sunlit office

For years, there has been only one way to use a desk, and that was to use it by sitting.

With lifestyle diseases on the rise in the population, health experts have looked at how to increase the physical activities people do day-to-day.

Two questions have arisen from that investigation: is sitting at your desk healthy, and if not, how can this be fixed?

The answer to the first question is that studies have shown its not healthy to spend hours sitting down every day.

So, given that as an employer you have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure your employees’ health and safety, what can you do about ‘fixing’ this issue?

Why you Should not Sit for Prolonged Periods

Studies have shown that the transition from standing to sitting position exerts pressure on the spine’s vertebral discs. Also, sitting down over long periods forces the discs to bulge out. The pressure and bulging are why one may experience back pain associated with sitting.

Sitting for long contributes to prolonged sedentary time. A sedentary lifestyle predisposes to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems.

In senior citizens, sitting all the time leads to frailty and disablement

Reasons to Switch to Standing Desks

A 2015 study that entailed workers switching to sit-stand desks reported that they felt more alert, energetic, and experienced increased interactions with their workmates.

When you stand after meals, your blood glucose levels normalize faster than if you continued sitting.

Standing promotes the health of your spine due to the less pressure exerted on the discs. Therefore, you will experience less back pain or even shoulder pain. If you suffer from radiologic lumbar instability or marked anterior loss of disc space, you will notice that standing elevates your pain and discomfort while sitting worsens it.

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Why do we Prefer Sitting to Standing?

Despite the benefits of standing, you and some of your employees may still prefer sitting to standing. Why is this so?

The first reason is our perception. A 2018 study focused on a workstation that had both sitting and sit-stand desks. A third of the employees used the sit-stand desks regularly, a third used them seasonally, while the remaining third did not use them. Those who did not use the sit-stand desks explained that they perceived those workstations as uncomfortable, unfeasible, and distracting.

Another reason is that it has become a social norm to sit, for instance, during meals, meetings, or social events. A study that required their participants to stand during meetings noted that the participants felt like they were disobeying societal norms. It is, therefore, vital that you normalize standing by employees who chose to do so.

However, it is true that some tasks, particularly those that need fine motor skills, are done best while seated. 

Debunking the Myth

Some people believe that when you stand, you burn more calories; hence you will lose weight. This is true, but the difference isn’t huge with standing burning 10% more calories per hour than sitting.

The metabolic energy costs (MEC) while seated is 2.90ml/kg/min, whereas that while standing is 3.20ml/kg/min. The margin is not significant enough for the two postures to have different weight loss capacities.

In essence a person burns 80 calories per hour while seated and 88 calories per hour while standing. 

How to Transition to Using a Stand-in Desk

If an employee has always sat at work, and tomorrow they decide to stand all day, their body will retaliate in the form of pain in their back, thighs, legs, and feet.

So it would help if they embraced standing gradually. Begin by standing for half an hour, then the whole hour, and increase slowly over time.

Employees should stand for a duration not exceeding four hours. Even within this time, they may alternate between standing and sitting. They do not have to stand the whole the day to get the benefits.

Also, add in more sit-stand transitions.

If you are in a meeting or gathering, encourage your employees to inform their colleagues that they plan to stand beforehand to avoid feeling awkward or uncomfortable.

Finally, show employees to take a break and sit whenever they experience unbearable pain or discomfort.

Disadvantages of Standing Desks

Standing desks aren’t all rosy. There are some disadvantages.

Standing in the same position for long damages your back.

Standing at work is a risk factor in the development of varicose veins. A research study discovered that 95% of people hospitalized due to varicose veins had jobs that involved prolonged standing. When employees stand for long, blood pools in their legs’ veins, hence weaken the veins’ walls and valves.

The pooling of blood associated with prolonged standing also predisposes to some cardiovascular problems and venous insufficiency.

In pregnant women, standing for too long has been associated with pre-term deliveries or spontaneous abortions.

Other symptoms of prolonged standing are bunions, swollen feet, disrupted flow of blood, flat feet, heel spurs, arthritis, stiffness, and Achilles tendonitis.

In summary, for wellbeing at work encourage your employees not to sit at their desks for prolonged periods of time, but to alternate sitting with periods of standing and ideally move around the workspace from time to time.

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