It’s no secret that sitting all day is a problem. Most of us do it too much, often spending more hours sitting than sleeping, a sedentary lifestyle responsible for one out of every 14 deaths. The biggest chunk of sedentary time, the eight or more hours spent at work, is also a big area for potential improvement for most people with desk jobs. It’s why so many employers, perhaps even yours, have invested in standing workstations.
But it turns out those may not be such a great idea, either. We now know that prolonged standing also has consequences, including back pain, tired feet, and varicose veins. Standing burns far fewer calories than you’d expect and won’t replace regular exercise. Many studies that tout standing’s benefits are incomplete or inconclusive. Fortunately, there’s a better way to work and it offers the best of both worlds.
The Case Against Sitting
Our bodies simply operate more efficiently when we’re on our feet than when we’re on our backsides. When seated for long periods, our hearts work harder, we weaken important leg and gluteal muscles, create potential back and shoulder pain, and set the stage for future hip problems. Sitting costs us the opportunity to engage our muscles and move in helpful ways to prevent aches and pains.
We also don’t digest food efficiently when we sit, making us more susceptible to acid reflux and weight gain. Counteracting the negative effects of sitting all day requires more than an hour of moderate-to-intensive exercise. Mayo Clinic researchers found standing for six hours each day reduces the probability of obesity by 35 percent in women and 59 percent in men.
With some exceptions, mostly precision work, we’re less focused and less effective doing tasks when we sit. Researchers who studied call center employees found those with access to stand-capable desks were 45 percent more productive than seated colleagues, especially after an adjustment period. We’re worse collaborators and less creative in chairs.
A sedentary lifestyle is also associated with a long list of chronic diseases, notably diabetes, where the risk rises by 112 percent among people who mostly sit. Blood sugar levels stay high longer after meals if you don’t mix in some movement. Sitting also carries an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Scientists believe being sedentary accounts for 173,000 American cancer cases each year, including one fourth of all breast and colon cancer cases, along with a higher risk of lung and uterine cancers. Being sedentary makes us more susceptible to anxiety and depression because we miss the mood-boosting effects of being active.
The Case Against Standing
So if sitting all day is bad, it’s natural to conclude that standing does the opposite. In reality, it’s not that simple. Standing beats sitting, but it’s not a cure-all for sitting’s problems. First off, standing isn’t as beneficial as exercise, especially if your goal is losing weight. One researcher found working at a standing desk for three hours burns about 24 calories, the same as a serving of spinach. Standing all day can cause fatigue, muscle aches, and swelling in the lower extremities. When we eat standing up, we tend to eat too quickly, eat too much, and swallow more air, causing post-meal bloating, gas and cramps. While we know prolonged sitting is bad, there isn’t the same wealth of evidence that prolonged standing is better.
It can also be a tough adjustment. In a study of people who made an immediate switch from all-day sitting to all-day standing, 75 percent of them reported back, leg and foot pain in the early days. Many abrupt switchers get burned out and revert back to their chairs. Of course, many people can’t work this way at all. Disability, injury, or other health conditions can make all-day standing a grueling ordeal.
The Verdict: Mix It Up
The answer, as it often is, is moderation. Alternating between sitting and standing throughout the day offers more benefits of both, with fewer downsides. The part of standing that helps us the most is the initial act of rising from our seats. That brief burst of movement, similar to a squat, burns more energy than standing alone, so the trick is finding reasons to get up throughout the day.
That’s not the only upside of a hybrid approach. A mix of sitting and standing helps reduce post-meal blood sugar spikes. It gives our bodies intervals of exercise and rest and reduces risk factors that cause sore joints and muscles. In the study that found people who worked at adjustable standing desks were more productive, most only used the standing setting for about a quarter of the day. A little time on your feet goes a long way.
If you have an adjustable desk, try changing positions more often, so you stand for one hour in the morning and another in the afternoon. If your desk won’t move, it doesn’t mean you can’t. A few tricks can help you add more movement to your day:
- Create Your Own Adjustable Desk
If you work on a laptop or lightweight desktop, stack it atop books or boxes so it’s at eye level when you stand. If you work from home, a countertop or taller piece of furniture can become a makeshift standing workstation for an hour or so.
- Meetings and Calls
In-person office meetings and conference calls present great standing opportunities. As a bonus, the extra focus you get from being on your feet will make you less likely to daze off.
- Rise and Refill
Plan short breaks throughout the day to get up and refill your water bottle. You’ll reap the benefits of the sit-to-stand motion and stay hydrated in the process. When you walk to the water fountain or restroom, find a roundabout way that takes a few extra steps. Adding just fifteen more minutes of walking during the day works wonders.
- Desk Exercises
Even if your job doesn’t have many standing opportunities, you can still be more active sitting down. Schedule a stand-and-stretch every half hour or as a reward for completing small tasks. Roll your shoulders, flex your knees, stretch your arms – all while you work. Some people slow-walk on a treadmill or use bike pedals under their desks. There are many ways to break the monotony of being parked in your chair, so get up and do something about it.