Do NOT Ditch Your Standing Desk

This is a subject you shouldn’t take sitting down. In recent weeks, there has been a media frenzy following the release of a paper called the Whitehall II study. The buzz suggests that there’s no difference to your health between sitting and standing at work. Headlines like “Sitting For Long Periods Does Not Make Death Imminent,” and “Throw Away Your Standing Desk” were everywhere. But, before you take a seat for good, consider the following.

This Is but ONE Study, Done  in Britain, With  a Slanted Test Group  

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In recent years, hundreds of studies have been conducted on the impact of sitting too much and physical inactivity in general. The vast, vast majority of the research shows that too much sitting causes an increase risk of disease, obesity, diabetes, orthopedic problems, depression, and even dementia.   These combined studies were so compelling, in fact, that the World Health Organization lists physical inactivity (sitting to much) as the forth-biggest preventable killer globally, after high blood pressure, smoking and high blood glucose.   In the realm of the sitting v. standing research, the British study is an anomaly for a couple of reasons.  

First, research subjects were all British, and, according to the non-profit Get Britain Standing, Brits sit an average of 8.9/hours a day.   Americans, on the other hand, sit about 13-16 hours a day—almost twice as much. Their champion sitting habits include time at work, at school, in cars and, of course, in from of TV sets and computers.  The researchers even noted that “there might be a higher than average daily activity in the cohort” they studied and that “Previously reported relationships between sitting time and health outcomes may be due in part to low total daily energy expenditure.”   They are basically saying poor health outcomes related to sitting must only be caused by not moving around enough.   Um, exactly like Americans….

Second, as the study authors noted above, the subjects in this study had a much higher daily physical activity than normal Brits.   That means that test participants were likely only sitting 4-6 hours/day,  much less than the average British citizen. That’s the equivalent of creating a study using only professional athletes as subjects and suggesting that the data apply to the average person.   Almost every study on the bad effects of sitting shows that sitting more than 6 hours a day leads to an increased risk of death over a lifetime from a variety of causes.  For people sitting less than 6 hours, there does not appear to be an increased risk of disease. In this study, participants were already sitting less than 6 hours and were not in the category of people at risk of suffering the serious health consequences of a sedentary life.

In the United States,  the average person sits most of his or her waking hours. There is no dispute on this significant fact.    Health and fitness professionals have spent the past 20 years telling people to get up more, move more, exercise more. Despite the national plea to move more, obesity and disease rates have continued to climb, and people have become even more sedentary.    If Americans were as active as the Whitehall II study participants, we wouldn’t even be talking about obesity, diabetes, or standing desks.

Sitting Is Still An Orthopedic Disaster

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Let’s just imagine for a moment that there is no data on how bad sitting is from a disease standpoint – no studies showing the relationship between sedentary behavior and cancer risk,  obesity, diabetes, depression, and dementia.   Even in that skewed scenario, from an orthopedic standpoint, no one can make a good argument that sitting is anything other than terrible.

Sitting a great deal with your joints at 90 degree angles is not only not natural, it can cause or exacerbate neck and back pain, headaches, knee and ankle injuries, diaphragm and pelvic floor dysfunction,  carpal tunnel syndrome, and hip dysfunction.   Hunching over your phone or your computer all day puts 60lbs of extra pressure on your spine. That causes wear and tear on your spinal cord, disc degeneration, herniation, surgery, nerve damage, headaches, compromised shoulder function, and compromised athletic function.   Because these conditions have become so pervasive, there is even a new medical term for the problem – “text neck.”

Standing Desks Are About Creating A Movement Rich Environment

The goal of a standing desk – especially standing desks for kids – isn’t actually in standing per se.   The goal is to create a movement rich environment that better suits natural human biomechanics.   Standing encourages far more movement in general.

While there is certainly a fair argument that people should just get up more from sitting, the reality is, they just don’t.   Research out of Cornell University Ergonomics Dpartment on sit/stand workstations, for example, shows that people stand for the first few months (perhaps because of the novelty of a new work environment) but eventually lower their desks, sit back down, and never get up.   The same goes for apps that remind people to get up and move – they work for a few months, and then people turn them off, get bored with them, and revert to sitting for hours and hours on end.   That’s why we all need to take the choice out of the matter and not make sitting an option.

There is also a pervasive argument in the media that standing all the time is bad for you. There is no research to indicate this. It’s a generalization that assumes that doing one thing for a long period of time must be bad for you and, hey, since other people have written about it, it must be true.   I even saw one article suggesting that standing caused deep vein thrombosis.  Since all the data show that sitting puts people at a much higher risk of DVTs than standing, the information is, of course, completely inaccurate.  

The only way standing for long periods is bad for you is if you stand like a statue and don’t move at all for hours on end.   It goes without saying that children simply do not do this – they are in constant motion at a standing desk – changing their foot positions, sometimes leaning, sometimes not, fidgeting, etc.  And, most adults are the same. Give them an environment that allows them to move, and they will.    This is a movement rich environment, and it simply doesn’t occur at a sitting desk.  

Adults And Children Alike Are More Attentive & Productive At Standing Desks

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People who use standing desks report feeling more awake, alert, and are up to 10% more productive.  This is no surprise, since scientists have long known that movement and brain function are connected.  The connection is especially true for children.  Research shows that kids who are engaged in daily physical education programs consistently show superior motor fitness, better academic performance, and a better attitude toward school than their more sedentary peers. (Donevan & Andrew 1986).   

A recent study in the International Journal of Health Promotion and Education conducted by Dr. Mark Benden and other researchers at Texas A&M, found that students provided with standing desks exhibited higher rates of engagement in the classroom than kids seated at desks.  Results show that there is 12 percent more  student engagement in classrooms with standing desks.  This equates to an extra seven minutes per hour of engaged instruction time, or 45 more minutes per school day.   That’s 135 more hours per year of student engagement.  Since the average school day is 6 hours long, imagine the increase in engagement and attention  when applied to the workfoce where adults typically work for at least eight hours a day.

Research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology shows that children with attention issues such as ADD/ADHD who traditionally have been told to sit still and concentrate, actually need to move in order to learn.   Small movements such as fidgeting, squirming, leg-swinging, and foot-tapping may be vital to a student’s ability to remember information and work out complex tasks.   

In a study from Brain, a journal published by Oxford University Press, standing up activates circulation in the brain which gives it the blood, nutrients, and oxygen it craves. In addition to greater blood circulation, standing results in healthier, more regulated blood sugar levels, a factor that impacts memory function. When sitting, blood glucose increases and can damage the hippocampus, leading to a decline in cognitive functioning over time.

So if you had any doubts about the impact of standing desks, you might just want to stand up and be counted.  Whatever you do, don’t give in to your lazy self because of one skewed study.