Standing desks or sit-stand desks make some real sense. They have been used by ‘visionaries’ such as Hemingway, Dickens and Kierkegaard but are just not seen enough inside a typical office setting.
Our feel here at C1 is that this is about to change. There’s been some powerful research that’s shown that the cumulative impact of sitting all day, for years, is associated with a range of important health problems. These include obesity, diabetes and cancer. Some describe the problem with a pithy new phrase: “Sitting is the new smoking.”
The average office worker spends 5 hours and 41 minutes sitting all day. This doesn’t include what goes on at home. Irritatingly for many of you, the solution isn’t to sit for six hours at work and then head to the gym afterward. Evidence suggests that the negative effects of extended sitting can’t be countered by brief bouts of strenuous exercise. The answer is incorporating standing, pacing and other forms of activity into your normal day—and standing at your desk for part of it is the easiest way of doing so.
Much of this research has been spurred by a bloke called James Levine, who is an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in the USA. He’s supported by a growing body of research with other scientists confirming that a sedentary lifestyle appears to be detrimental in the long-term.
Levine’s research started as an investigation into that age-old health question: why some people gain weight and others don’t. He recruited a group of office workers who engaged in little routine exercise, put them all on an identical diet that contained about 1000 more calories than they’d been consuming previously, which is a fair bit. He also forbid them from changing their exercise habits. Despite the standardized diet and exercise regimens, some participants (not surprisingly) gained weight, while others (surprisingly) stayed slim. Eventually, using underwear stitched with sensors(!) that measure every subtle movement, the researchers discovered what was going on: the participants who weren’t gaining weight were up and walking around, on average, 2.25 more hours per day than the others, even though all of them worked at sitting desks.
Levine adds: “During all of our days, there are opportunities to move around substantially more,” mentioning things as mundane as walking to a colleague’s office rather than emailing them, or taking the stairs instead of the lift.
Here’s a list of some of the benefits scientists have found so far:
Failing to take advantage of these movement opportunities, it turns out, is closely associated with obesity. Research suggests that our conventional exercise strategy of sitting all day at work, then going to the gym or going for a run “makes scarcely more sense than the notion that you could counter a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging,”. The key to reducing the risk of obesity is consistent, moderate levels of movement throughout the day.
Scientists are still investigating why this might be the case. The reduced amount of calories burned while sitting is clearly involved, but there may also be metabolic changes involved, such as the body’s cells becoming less responsive to insulin, or sedentary muscles releasing lower levels of the enzymes
Of course, all this specifically points to danger of sitting too much which is not exactly the same as the benefit of standing. But Levine believes the two are closely intertwined. He adds:
“Step one is get up. Step two is learn to get up more often. Step three is, once you’re up, move,”
“And what we’ve discovered is that once you’re up, you do tend to move.”
Steps one and two are the most important parts and a desk that encourages you to stand at least some of the time is one of the most convenient means of doing so.
Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Other Metabolic Problems
The detrimental health impacts of sitting and the benefits of standing appear to go beyond a long way beyond just obesity. Some of the same studies by Levine and others have found that sitting for extended periods of time is correlated with reduced effectiveness in regulating levels of glucose in the bloodstream, part of a condition known as metabolic syndrome, this increases the chance of type 2 diabetes.
Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Evidence that sitting is bad for the cardiovascular system goes all the way back to the 1950s, when an elegant study compared rates of heart disease in London bus drivers (who sit) and bus conductors (who stand) and found that the former group experienced far more heart attacks and other problems than the latter.
Adults who spend two more hours per day sitting have a 125 percent increased risk of health problems related to cardiovascular disease, including chest pain and heart attacks. Other studies suggest that men who spend more than five hours per day sitting outside of work and get limited exercise were at twice the risk of heart failure as those who exercise often and sit fewer than two hours daily outside of the office. Even when the researchers controlled for the amount of exercise, excessive sitters were still 34 percent more likely to develop heart failure than those who were standing or moving.
Reduced Risk of Cancer
A small number of studies have suggested that extended periods of sitting can be linked with a higher risk of many forms of cancer. Breast and colon cancer appear to be most influenced by physical activity (or lack of): a 2011 study found that prolonged sitting could be responsible for as much as 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 cases of colon cancer annually in the U.S. But the same research found that significant amounts of lung cancer (37,200 cases), prostate cancer (30,600 cases), endometrial cancer (12,000 cases) and ovarian cancer (1,800 cases) could also be related to excessive sitting.
Lower Long-Term Mortality Risk
Because of the reduced chance of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer,a number of studies have found strong correlations between the amount of time a person spends sitting and his or her chance of dying within a given period of time.
A 2010 Australian study, for instance, found that for each extra hour participants spent sitting daily, their overall risk of dying during the study period (seven years) increased by 11 percent.
These studies all control for other factors such as diet and exercise indicating that sitting, in isolation, can lead to a variety of health problems and increase the overall risk of death, even if you try to get exercise while you’re not sitting and eat a healthy diet. And though there are many situations besides the office in which we sit for extended periods (driving and watching TV), spending some of your time at work at a standing desk is one of the most direct solutions.
If you’re going to start doing so, we’d recommend splitting your time between standing and sitting, because standing all day can lead to back, knee or foot problems. The easiest ways of accomplishing this are either using a desk that can be raised or use a bar stool that you can pull up to your desk when you do need to sit. It’s also important to ease into it, they say, by standing for just a few hours a day at first while your body becomes used to the strain, and move around a bit, by shifting your position or pacing as you work.
Whatever you do, have a look at the time out of work you actually sit down and do something about that as well.