If you’ve paid attention to, well, the world over the past half decade, you’re probably aware of the latest hype-train in workplace technology: standing desks.
The perfect companion to mindfulness and Soylent, standing desks became all the rage as a way to counteract the negative health impacts of sitting in a crouched position all day. While the hype has died down a little bit (in no small part due to a predictable counter-hype training accusing standing desks of causing knee problems), standing desks continue to grow in popularity and millions of people swear by them.
Is the hype justified? This article will dig into the facts and fiction behind standing desks, and try to answer a simple question: are standing desks worth it?
First, a bit of background
Standing desks are by no means a recent invention. In fact, many famous intellectuals, writers & statesmen worked on standing desks as a means to improve posture and drive focus — names like Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway and Charles Darwin among them.
The theory behind standing desks are sound: according to a meta-analysis of studies done on the topic, it’s clear that prolonged sitting consistently leads to much higher mortality rates. So, following that train of thought, standing should solve that problem.
Well, the answer there is frustratingly fuzzy. Part of why it’s a difficult question to answer is because we aren’t entirely certain why sitting is so bad. We know it’s bad for your posture, and we know it causes issues with circulation. It’s also a strong signal for obesity (though that’s more of a lifestyle issue than directly related to sitting).
So if posture and obesity are the two primary issues with sitting, are standing desks the answer?
In part because of a lack of studies on the issue, and in other part because the results simply aren’t convincing, there isn’t much evidence either way — in short, we can’t convincingly say one way or the other.
A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that standing desks reduced upper back and neck pain and improved overall mood vs sitting down. While this sounds compelling, there are two obvious flaws to this conclusion: 1) there’s likely a placebo effect at least partially involved with the latter, and 2) the study didn’t look into possible drawbacks of standing desk.
On the topic of orthopedic health, standing is certainly a better option for your posture, as well as back and neck, than sitting — however it brings with it it’s own share of issues, primarily related to knee pain. When factoring in all the unique drawbacks of standing desk, research around this issue suggests that standing desks generally don’t offer more orthopedic benefits to sitting desks.
The other purported benefit of standing desks is supposed to be for obesity — on that front, there is a scientific consensus. A standing desk setup doesn’t burn significantly more calories than sitting down, and it certainly isn’t anywhere close to the miracle obesity cure it has often been hyped to be. At best you can expect to burn a few pounds a year, but week to week it won’t make much of a difference.
So, if we had to summarize, the actual physiological impacts of standing desks don’t have enough research behind them to say conclusively one way or the other, but the little research that does exist seems to strongly suggest that they aren’t all that helpful an alternative.
So what’s the answer?
There are ways to counteract some of the drawbacks of standing desks. For example, fatigue mats have been shown in some studies to reduce standing fatigue and knee strain by as much as 60%. While there certainly isn’t any research to drive this conclusion, that difference might just be enough to tip a standing desk setup over the edge in comparing it to it’s 4-legged counterpart.
Ultimately, until there’s more research on the issue, the right answer is likely somewhere in the middle.
Regardless of your desk setup, there is one consistently proven technique for improving your health: walk. Replacing 2 minutes of sitting time every hour with a quick stroll around the office reduced risk in office workers of premature death by a whopping 33 percent.
Seriously — just by getting up to get a glass of water once an hour you’re 33% less likely to die prematurely compared to your peers. That’s a significantly bigger health impact (for significantly cheaper) than any reported benefits of standing desks.
Back on topic: Are Standing Desks Worth It?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Maybe. By itself, the research doesn’t seem to suggest that a standing desk is worth the investment.
The issues with standing desks are independent from those with sitting desks. In other words, standing mitigates a lot of the problems that sitting has while introducing some of it’s own, and vice versa.
Following that train of thought, you could conclude that the best way to maximize the benefits of both while minimizing the risks is a hybrid setup. Sit-stand desks are an increasingly popular alternative to a pure sit or stand desk — desks that can be electronically shifted up or down to switch between sitting or standing.
In theory, this setup should enable the best of both worlds; minimizing the risks of either setup, while still attaining the benefits.
Sit-stand desks are still relatively new and not very well understood, but there is some research out there that suggests this line of thinking is valid. A study done by a team of researchers in the UK aimed to answer this question, studying the impacts of hundreds of office workers who switched to a sit-stand desk. The results were fairly convincing: participants showed notable improvements in job performance, work engagement, occupational fatigue, daily anxiety and quality of life.
Standing desks are, without a doubt, over-hyped, and most of the supposed benefits simply aren’t true. While the science is still catching up, the existing research strongly points in the direction that standing desks simply aren’t worth the investment.
Sit-stand desks, however, do show some promise, which ultimately belies the underlying point: the real issue is structural, and not related to your desk. We need to move away from sedentary office life, and move towards encouraging workplace cultures that promote activity.
Instead of focusing on a desk, the best workplaces have a steady mix of sitting, standing & walking — and ultimately, that’s the future of work we need to strive towards.