According to the Annals of Internal Medicine, the average person sits for half of their waking hours. They sit at work and then sit at home. And sitting increases the risks of many serious health issues.
But there’s a growing health trend that helps to offset the damage done by long periods of inactivity—standing desks. People are buying standing desks for their home offices and employers are now offering their employees the option to stand while they work. A survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that standing desks are the fastest-growing benefits trend. In 2013, 13% of employers provided or subsidized standing desks, in 2017, 44%, and in 2019, 60%.
We're going to share some research on the benefits of standing desks, as well as discuss our experiences and the experiences of others during their transition to a standing desk.
The most common benefits that we'll discuss are:
- weight loss
- higher productivity
- reduced rate of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and early mortality
- more energy
- better mood
- less back pain
According to a study by the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center, standing only burns 10% more calories than sitting. Researchers attached 74 people with masks that measured oxygen consumption and followed 3 groups of participants. They found that participants who sat burned 80 calories/hour, those who stood burned 88 calories/hour, and those who walked burned 210 calories/hour.
Burning an additional 8 calories/hour isn’t significant, especially when you factor in that many people who stand at their desks don’t stand all day. If you stood at your desk for half of your workday, and your workday is 8 hours, then 4 hours of standing will burn an additional 32 calories vs. sitting for 8 hours. If you multiply 32 calories by 5 days per week, 44 weeks per year, you'll burn an additional 7,040 calories in one year (just over 2 lbs).
The journal Occupational Medicine explains in a March 2017 publication that a standing desk, “provides an opportunity to increase energy expenditure throughout the working day.” They explain further, "Though modest, accumulation of this small benefit over time could be an important part of the public health strategy to prevent weight gain in desk-bound workers."
The numbers we just discussed are consistent with the experiences of many people who start using standing desks—they often lose a little weight, but not a significant amount. People have more energy when they stand compared to when they sit, and when they have more energy, they tend to be more active. Using a standing desk is just one part of an active lifestyle.
Another factor to consider is that when people stand at their desks, they often do more than just stand. It's common for people to shift, stretch, squat, and dance when they're standing at their desks. They also tend to leave their desks more often.
For those interested in losing weight while working, we recommend using an under-desk treadmill so you can walk while you work, or an under-desk bike. People who use one of these will rotate between walking, standing, and sitting throughout the day, often sitting for tasks that require deep concentration, and walking or standing for tasks that require less focus.
Dan Fois published an experiment in New York Magazine where he stood for 30 days straight. The only time he wasn’t standing was when he slept or used the bathroom. One of the remarkable things that happened was a significant increase in his productivity. “I’ve cut my time-wasting drastically, editing and writing more than in any month I can remember.”
This isn’t an uncommon experience. Many people note that when they add standing to their work routine, they tend to be more productive and spend less time on social media and other unproductive tasks.
Research done on call center workers found a 23% increase in success rates for those who stood during calls compared to those who sat. Researchers also noted a difference in the worker’s comfort, attitude about work, and how they felt about themselves.
Researchers believe this may be because of the increased circulation to the brain, improving mental function. For this reason, many large corporations give standing desks to their employees, including Google and Facebook.
A study from Washington University shows that working while standing encourages creativity and collaboration. At least one reason why is that when people stand, they're more likely to move around and visit coworker's desks than when they're sitting.
Reduced Rates of Diabetes, Heart Disease, Cancer, and Early Mortality
There’s an abundance of research that tells us that sitting for extended periods significantly increases the rates for some of the leading causes of death for people in the United States. Significant research has been published that has found an association between a sedentary lifestyle and higher rates of heart disease (the number one cause of death), cancer (the second), and diabetes (seventh).
According to Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor at Harvard Medical School, extended periods of sitting reduces fat and sugar metabolism, increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Research from Australia found that plasma levels and glucose levels were 20% higher in subjects who sat for 5 hours compared to those who took light activity breaks every 20 minutes. Another study found that sitting most of the time in a 24-hour period makes insulin 40% less effective in managing blood sugar. Sitting 6 hours/day for 2 weeks caused LDL and other fatty substances to rise, while the enzymes that break them down decrease.
Sitting time is also associated with larger waist circumference, BMI, systolic blood pressure, fasting triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol. According to Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and research fellow in biology at Imperial College London, these are all "first steps on the road to diabetes."
One of the first studies from 1953 found that bus conductors who stood all day had half the risk of heart disease-related deaths than drivers who sat all day. Subsequent studies have confirmed the original study. A comparison study that looked at 18 different studies found that a sedentary lifestyle has been associated with a 90% increase in heart disease-related deaths, and a 147% increase in the risk of cardiovascular events compared to those with non-sedentary lifestyles.
Another study found that after 3 hours of sitting, artery dilation decreases by 50%.
Constant sitting for 10 years or more is believed to increase the risk of heart disease by 64%.
Women who sit for at least 6 hours/day have a higher risk of cancer than those who sit for 3 hours/day (especially for ovarian, breast, endometrial, and multiple myeloma). For men, rates of prostate cancer are lower for those who don’t sit at work and do 30 minutes/day of walking or bicycling. Sedentary behavior is associated with a higher risk of colon cancer for men and women. It’s estimated that higher activity could prevent 100,000 cases of breast and colon cancer every year in the U.S.
Sitting is considered an independent factor, which means that if you are healthy in other areas of your life, your sedentary habit could cause cancer, even if you don't smoke, you exercise regularly, and you live an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Researchers have estimated that if the U.S. population reduced sitting time by 3 hours/day, life expectancy would increase by 2 years.
Those who watched 4 hours of TV every day compared to those who watched less than 2 hours had a 50% increased risk of death from any cause, and a 125% increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease.
More Energy & Better Mood
An Australian study from 2012 found that sitting while using a computer was associated with more severe anxiety and depression.
A year-long study from the International Journal of Workplace Health Management involved 67 participants, half of whom sat, and the other half who had the option of standing. The study tracked participants in a real office. 61% of the participants who stood reported more energy, a positive outlook, as well as having less pain in muscles, joints, and back, and feeling stronger and more limber. And 65% reported greater productivity.
The “Take-a-Stand-Project” is a study from 2011 that followed a group of 24 office workers who used a standing desk for 4 weeks. At the end of the 4 weeks, participants were asked a series of questions. The results:
- 87% felt more comfortable
- 87% felt more energy
- 75% felt healthier
- 71% felt more focused
- 66% felt more productive
- 62% felt happier
- 33% felt less stress
After the standing desks were removed, the participants reported feeling worse.
Reduced Back Pain
One study from Minneapolis tested two groups for 7 weeks, one with a standing desk, the other without. The group that had a standing desk reduced their sitting time by 66 minutes/day and reduced their upper back and neck pain by 54%.
Experts believe that one of the reasons why using a standing desk can reduce back pain is due to increased circulation of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the back and neck. Many people who sit all day do so with poor posture, which can pinch nerves, reduce blood flow, and aggravate pressure points.
Using a standing desk doesn’t guarantee reduced back pain. The causes of back pain can be numerous and in many cases unknown. But experts recommend to create an ergonomic workspace, change your work position every 20 minutes (or at least take a quick walk), and keep moving (as there is no perfect posture, only the next posture). A study from the University of Cincinnati found a significant decrease in shoulder and back pain when study participants varied their postures.
Keep in mind that when we talk about using a standing desk, we aren’t talking about standing all day. Experts recommend switching throughout the day between standing and sitting. It’s possible to be mostly inactive as well while standing, which isn’t helpful. Standing for long periods may cause tightness in the legs and back.