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The Sit-Stand Desk: A Mythology

In 2013, Nilofer Merchant, a corporate director who works with tech companies, used the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” in both an HBR article and a TED talk. The simple and well-documented truth is that sitting too much is unhealthy.

In response, people flocked to buy standing desks, exercise balls, and other “office health aides” –with questionable efficacy at best. While further research has helped us move past the exercise ball craze – see my earlier article on seating – the sit-stand desk remains a symbol of a healthy workplace.

Sit-stand desks are an incredible tool for workplace well being; every able-bodied person should have one! In this case, too much of a good thing will backfire. Below are three myths people believe about sit-stand desks, and what to do instead:

The Substitution Myth

The rationale: Sitting all day is bad for you; stand all day instead!

The truth: The idea that standing is healthier than sitting is flatly false. Standing may be better for your trunk and upper-limbs, but it is worse for your lower-limbs and vascular system (1). After 26 minutes, vascular pooling due to inactivity begins – much more severely in standing sedentary than sitting (1). Several academic studies have shown sedentary standing to be less comfortable than sitting (1, 2). Prolonged sitting caused pain in the lower back, but prolonged standing led to pain in the thoracic spine, hips, thighs, forearms, wrists, and hands (2). Another study found that standing all day can lead to back, knee or foot problems (3). And perhaps most surprisingly, there is no cardio-metabolic benefit to stationary standing versus sitting (1).

What to do instead: Use movement as a workplace health strategy

  • Have a sit-stand desk, and alternate between sitting and standing regularly

  • Take regular breaks from your desk

  • Take a walking meeting; this was Nilofer Merchant’s advice!

The Usage Myth

The rationale: My group / company would be so much more active if we had standing desks

The truth: Standing desks aren’t right for everyone. Those with certain heart diseases or other medical conditions may be harmed by standing work (4, 5). Others spend a lot of time away from their desk standing, and are unlikely to use the standing feature (5, 6). Even once provided, they get relatively little use. Two studies have confirmed that around 50% of standing desks will remain almost permanently in the “sit” position (5, 7). Another study found that the average worker stood for 24% of the day without a sit-stand desk; once everyone had a sit-stand desk that number rose to 30% - only ~30 minutes more standing!

What to do instead:

  • Test a few sit-stand workstations and observe usage; ask employees before making a big purchase

  • For cash-strapped businesses: consider whether a few smaller interventions (walking meetings, a few shared standing desks) might have a larger impact at a lower cost

The Productivity Myth

The rationale: If I had a standing desk – or even a treadmill desk – I would be more active and focused!

The truth: After working both in sitting and standing positions in one study, employees touted sitting as more focused and less likely to cause interruptions (6). Active workstations like treadmills decrease productivity (1).

What to do instead:

  • Standing is most effective as a “break” from sitting (1); doing so can improve circulation and mood (8)



Sources:

(1) Antle, David & Cormier, Lauren & Findlay, Megan & Miller, Linda & Côté, Julie. (2018). Lower limb blood flow and mean arterial pressure during standing and seated work: Implications for workplace posture recommendations. Preventive Medicine Reports. 10. 10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.02.016.

(2) Dias, Natália & Seára Tirloni, Adriana & Reis, Diogo & Moro, Antônio. (2019). The Ergonomics of the “Seated Worker”: Comparison Between Postures Adopted in Conventional and Sit-Stand Chairs in Slaughterhouses: Volume VIII: Ergonomics and Human Factors in Manufacturing, Agriculture, Building and Construction, Sustainable Development and Mining. 10.1007/978-3-319-96068-5_6.

(3) Stromberg, J. (2014, March 26). Five Health Benefits of Standing Desks. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/five-health-benefits-standing-desks-180950259/.

(4) Wang A, Arah OA, Kauhanen J, Krause N. Shift work and 20-year incidence of acute myocardial infarction: results from the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Occup Environ Med. 2016;73:588–594.

(5) Caple D. (2019) A Focus on Dynamic Work Rather Than Sit or Stand Postures. In: Bagnara S., Tartaglia R., Albolino S., Alexander T., Fujita Y. (eds) Proceedings of the 20th Congress of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA 2018). IEA 2018. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, vol 820.

(6) Caple D. (2019) Cognitive and Psychosocial Assessment of Sit or Stand Workstations. In: Bagnara S., Tartaglia R., Albolino S., Alexander T., Fujita Y. (eds) Proceedings of the 20th Congress of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA 2018). IEA 2018. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, vol 820.

(7) Baukens, C., Hermans, V., & Daenen, L. (2018). Sit-Stand Workstation for Office Workers: Impact on Sedentary Time, Productivity, Comfort and Feasability.

(8) Mitsuya, Reiko & Nakamura, Keisuke & Sugita, Takuro & Ozawa, Naoya & Yaita, T. & Kawai, Takashi. (2019). An Ergonomic Evaluation of Elevating the Work Desk: The Relationship of Sitting Work with Standing Work. 10.1007/978-3-319-94484-5_24.

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