In recent years, a steady stream of research has linked sitting for prolonged periods of time with health concerns, including an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and early death.
The association appears to hold even if people carve out time in their otherwise sedentary day to run, bike or do some other form of vigorous exercise.
The findings have been so worrisome that they’ve led some health officials to proclaim (rather hyperbolically) that “sitting is the new smoking.”
They’ve also led to a new, ubiquitous piece of office furniture: the sit-stand desk.
But do such desks help to lower the health risks associated with prolonged sitting?
No, according to a new analysis of previously published studies on the topic. The analysis found specifically that using a standing desk doesn’t help people lose weight. Nor does it make them healthier or more productive.
That’s not to say that the desks don’t offer some benefits. The analysis also found that people tend to report less lower-back pain and a greater sense of physical comfort when working at a standing desk than at a sitting one.
“When they first hit the market, I think that certain areas of research just had higher expectations that they could use these [standing desk] devices for weight loss and things like that — and they haven’t lived up to that,” said April Chambers, the study’s lead author and a bioengineer at the University of Pittsburgh, in an interview with MarketWatch reporter Nicole Lyn Pesce.
“But I don’t think that’s necessarily what they were made for, and I think there are other benefits that have been underexplored,” she added.
The review article was published last week in the journal Applied Ergonomics.
For their analysis, Chambers and her co-authors examined 53 studies that had looked at the effects of sit-stand desks on six factors:
- behavioral changes (time spent standing vs. sitting)
- physiological outcomes (such as changes in weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels)
- work performance (such as absenteeism and productivity)
- psychological outcomes (such as changes in mood, thinking abilities and work satisfaction)
- discomfort (such as impact on muscle-related pain, including lower-back pain)
The analysis found that the desks had only a modest impact on any of those factors, with the strongest involving changes in behavior and discomfort.
People certainly spent more time standing, although that change in behavior wasn’t dramatic. Across the studies, people reduced their sitting time by an average of 0.1 to 3.6 hours a day.
The discomfort finding was related specifically to low-back pain. Eight out of the 17 studies that looked at that issue found that people who used a standing desk reported significantly less low-back pain.
In several of the studies, however, people reported that using a standing desk increased their back pain.
Not a major calorie burner
Many people have been sold on the idea of using a standing desk because of claims that the body burns more calories when standing than when sitting. The desks have been proposed, therefore, as an aid to maintaining a healthy weight.
The studies do not support those claims, Chambers and her co-authors found. Among the studies that examined this issue, most reported no significant change in the amount of calories burned when using a standing desk. And when a change was found, it was quite small — between 4 and 10 extra calories per hour.
That’s probably because standing is also a sedentary behavior, the researchers note.
“There are health benefits to using sit-stand desks, such as a small decrease in blood pressure or low-back pain relief, but people simply are not yet burning enough calories to lose weight with these devices,” says Chambers in a released statement.
Small changes may, however, add up to big benefits for some individuals, she adds.
“Though these are mild benefits, certainly populations might benefit greatly from even a small change in their health,” she explained. “In order to achieve positive outcomes with sit-stand desks, we need a better understanding of how to properly use them; like any other tool, you have to use it correctly to get the full benefits out of it.”
Few of the studies discussed how they trained people to use the sit-stand desks, Chambers and her co-authors point out in their paper.
Limitations and implications
The studies had other limitations, too. They were small in size (from six to 231 participants) and tended to be short in duration (from a day to a year). In addition, most of their participants were healthy, normal-weight, younger adults.
It would be interesting to see what impact, if any, sit-stand desks have on middle-aged or overweight workers, says Chambers.
Research is also needed to see if “dosage” — how long people spend standing rather than sitting at a desk — makes a difference. (The “Goldilock effect” may be in play with sit-stand desks, as standing for too long is also associated with health risks.)
“There is still more to learn about sit-stand desks,” Chambers adds. “The science is catching up, so let’s use what we’ve studied in this area to advance the research and answer some of these pressing questions so that people can use sit-stand desks correctly and get the most benefit from them.”
So, don’t throw out your sit-stand desk yet. But you don’t need to run out and buy one, either.
What all of us with desk jobs should be doing is much simpler (and less expensive): Get up and move around more during the day.
Other research has found that taking frequent, short walking breaks — as little as two minutes every hour — can help ward off the negative effects of prolonged sitting.
FYI: You’ll find an abstract for the review article on the Applied Ergonomics website, but the full study is behind a paywall.