The average American worker spends an average of 8.5 hours a day at work, according to the most recent report by The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of that time is spent sitting.
Add to that another 100 hours per year commuting to and from work... also sitting.
Meals, television, reading, traveling... what do all these things have in common?
You probably get the idea, but let's state the obvious nonetheless: Our whole day is built around sitting!
With an abundance of medical studies pointing to the many health hazards of sitting, it's no wonder that standing desks have become all the rage as a way to limit sedentary behavior in the office environment. If one could just stand more, instead of sitting all day, all your problems are solved, right?
Well, yes and no. If you've done your research, you know that standing desks aren't a miracle pill to heal a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, there is quite a bit of conflicting information about whether or not a standing desk is beneficial.
This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the research, and give you a deeper and objective look into the real health benefits of a standing desk.
By the end of this article, you should understand that owning a standing desk won't magically solve all the problems that result from sitting 8-10 hours a day. But you'll also come away with an understanding that a standing desk CAN have a tremendous positive impact on your health and wellbeing, and that there are few solutions that help reverse the effects of excess sitting as simply, as quickly, and as elegantly as a standing desk.
Let's dive into the evidence.
Before going into the benefits of a standing desk, let's first quickly address why sitting too much is a problem. We've all heard that "Sitting is the new smoking," but what does that really mean?
Yes, that phrase might sound hyperbolic - but it was actually coined quite thoughtfully by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, by way of trying to make an important point. While sitting might not appear to produce the same severe dangers of smoking - when you study it's wide-reaching and long term effects, you find that excessive sitting is actually quite devastating to our health.
In the exact words of Dr. Levine:
"Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death."
According to the pros at Mayo Clinic and WebMD, there are plenty of reasons why sitting is considered the new smoking. When you sit too much, you trigger a variety of problems that are as detrimental to your health as smoking (if not more so). Just to name a few of these health problems:
There are several ways to combat the effects of over-sitting - including exercising, walking more, stretching, etc. - but there are few things you can do that are as simple and sustainable as using a sit to stand desk.
No memberships required, no discipline or motivation necessary.
With all that said, let's get into the all the meaningful ways a standing desk can be beneficial to your health and wellbeing.
Nothing ground-breaking here, but the most typical reason for purchasing a standing desk is for relief from back problems. By now, it's common knowledge that sitting is detrimental to our spine - but let's make sure we understand how and why.
The problem with sitting is explained well by Dr. Kelly Starrett - a practicing Physiologist, fitness expert, founder of MobilityWOD, and the author of his book on the subject: Deskbound.
In his book, Dr. Starrett explains how the invention of the chair has drastically reduced the amount of time humans spend in their natural state - standing, walking, and generally active - replacing it instead with hours upon hours of sitting, that cause poor posture, weak & imbalanced muscles, and a lack of mobility in their joints and tissues.
When we sit for long periods the muscles in our lower bodies begin to disengage and become unbalanced. We stop using the muscles and connective tissues supporting our spine; our hip-flexors, hamstrings and calves begin to shorten and tighten; and the body begins to naturally adapt to the sitting position (knees and torso at 90º angles). Then when we stand up, and all those tight tissues stretch and tug (like rubber bands), pulling the spine out of alignment, and setting us up for injury.
When we repeat this day in and day out, our body simply loses it's ability to function like it is meant to.
And the risks can be even greater for athletes and fitness junkies. Even if you train for 1-2 hours per day, that's not nearly enough to reverse the effects of sitting for several hours. And worse, you're likely at a greater risk of injury.
With all this in mind, and the knowledge that over 86% of Americans sit and work at their desk all day long, it's not surprising that 8 out of 10 people suffer from back pain, and that Americans spend $50 billion annually treating back pain. We're all tied to our desks, and we simply can't escape the problem!
When used properly, a standing desk can significantly reduce the amount of time sitting - which will help balance and engage the body's muscles, increase overall mobility, strengthen and lubricate joints, and return the body to it's natural human state. In turn, these improvements lead to better posture, less pain, and a drastically reduced risk of injury.
*Click here to learn more about standing desks and back pain, and all the things that change in your body when you spend less time sitting at work.
Can a standing desk really help you burn fat, lose weight and reduce your risk of obesity? Take just 10 seconds to google the topic, and you'll find a fairly even mix between articles that say yes, and articles that say no. What a mess!
Standing desks absolutely help you burn more calories and lose weight, but perhaps not the way you would think...
First, let's identify the primary point of confusion. Most of the arguments against the efficacy of a standing desk for weight loss center around one simple - and flawed - argument: "standing doesn't burn enough calories."
When researchers study the effects of standing desks on weight loss, they typically make a direct comparison between the quantity of calories you burn sitting vs. the quantity of calories you burn while standing, which leads them to conclude that standing doesn't burn enough calories to have a meaningful effect on weight loss.
On the surface, it's hard to argue that assertion - but these studies aren’t looking at the whole picture.
The question we should be asking is not “How many more calories do we burn while standing?” The answer to that question lacks context.
Instead, it's vital that we consider ALL of the changes that occur in the body as a result of standing and moving in front of a standing desk: increased metabolism, positive hormonal changes, decreased blood sugar, and more.
To use a crude analogy, you can think of sitting as kind of like driving a car stuck in first gear - unable to build momentum or reach it's full speed potential. When you sit, your body remains stuck in first gear - and it struggles to fuel it's metabolic engine, burn calories and power it's vital systems.
Adding a standing desk is like accelerating your car and shifting it into high gear. Thermogenesis kicks in, giving your body the boost it needs to burn significant calories day and night - not just while standing. It also kicks all of your fat burning hormones into action.
*Click here to learn more about Standing Desks and Weight Loss, and the 2 key changes caused by the use of a standing desk that can lead to meaningful weight loss.
*Click here to learn more about the calories burned while using a standing desk, and why you should probably stop counting.
Weight gain and obesity aren't the only health problems associated with our modern habit of over-sitting. In fact, there have been extensive studies linking sitting and sedentary behavior to our risk of chronic diseases, such as Heart Disease, Type-2 Diabetes, Cancer, and more. The less you move... the greater your risk!
There have been several studies done on the adverse effects of sitting too much - as it relates to circulatory and heart health - and most agree that the more you sit, the greater your risk of heart disease.
The reason? When you're sedentary, your heart doesn't get the circulation and exercise it needs to do its job properly. Your blood flow slows down, and fatty acids begin to accumulate in the blood vessels - putting you at a higher risk of heart disease.
There are many studies published on this topic, which we cover in depth here. Some even go so far as to quantify the exact percent increase in your risk of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) for each additional hour spent sitting per day - a whopping 12% increase!
Here is the good news. With the help of an adjustable sit to stand desk, you can increase your movement, reduce your hours spent sedentary, and decrease your overall risk of heart disease.
There is plenty of research to demonstrate that sitting too long can also lead to insulin resistance, lower blood sugar levels, and slow down your metabolism - all of which can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes (as we've already discussed).
We go into greater detail on the research on this page, but the over-arching theme is that excessive time spent sitting leads to a higher risk of death from all kinds of diseases, diabetes in particular.
The simplest solution offered by researchers was to simply spend more time on your feet. By their recommendation, if you stand for just 2 minutes for every 20 minutes you spend sitting (10% of your work day), you can take a huge step towards reducing your risk of Diabetes. And of course, a standing desk is one of the easiest ways to make this change.
You might also be surprised to learn that over-sitting can also increase the risk of colon, breast, and endometrial cancers (among others). According to the research, excessive sitting may increase the risk of certain cancers by as much as 66%!
Again, getting a standing desk is the perfect office addition to help minimize the time spent sitting, and reduce your risk of Cancer.
Click here to read more about the connection between sitting and cancer, and how standing desks can help. We also share some more strategies for reducing your risk of cancer caused by sitting.
*Click here to read more about how a standing desks can help reduce your risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even Chronic Kidney Disease.
What could you do with more energy and focus throughout your work day?
So far, this article has mostly addressed how standing desks help fend off potential life-threatening diseases, but avoiding illness isn't the only reason to invest in a standing desk.
Standing desks also promote wellness by boosting energy, focus, and critical thinking.
One recent NCBI study found that 87% of standing desk users reported more considerable energy throughout the day when using a standing desk.
Ironically, the reasons participants felt more energy from using a standing desk are some of the same reasons that help people avoid disease.
Standing up and moving around has a positive hormonal effect on the body that helps regulate energy and blood sugar. When your blood sugar is stable, it enables you to maintain higher levels of energy and avoid the "afternoon crash."
Additionally, standing also stimulates circulation in the body. When your circulation is increased, it sends more oxygen to your brain and encourages neurogenesis in regions of the brain associated with critical thinking.
Another recent study demonstrated a negative link between prolonged sitting and brain atrophy- particularly in the hippocampus - a part of the brain that is essential for memory function.
Standing desks aren't just a good investment for avoiding disease. They are a significant investment to help you maintain high levels of energy, feel better throughout the day, and hone your critical thinking and memory.
An often overlooked, but significant benefit of standing desks is their ability to help improve mood and reduce the effects of anxiety and depression.
If you've ever felt anxiety or depression while sitting in your office, you are not alone. In fact, it may be safe to say that a majority of our work force experience feelings of depression while at work. It also turns out that there is a scientific reason behind the anxiety and depression you experience from sitting too long at work.
Extended time spent sitting is strongly linked to symptoms of depression. One study from the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity examined whether time sitting in different contexts was associated with more anxiety, depression, and stress.
The results showed that sitting time spent on a computer was associated with a high degree of depression and anxiety - while time spent sitting in transport was associated with even more severe anxiety and stress.
Once again, the results suggest that reducing overall sitting time, time sitting at a computer, and sitting while in transport could improve mental health.
Another study confirmed that standing desks have a positive effect on overall well-being, when participants reported less stress and fatigue while using a standing desk for 1-2 hours per day. Once the desks were removed, most participants then observed that those improvements were negated within 2 weeks, leading to the conclusion that standing has a very causal effect on stress and anxiety.
So, the research clearly shows that sitting at work boosts stress, anxiety, and depression and that overall mood can be improved by switching to a standing desk.
Earlier in this article, we addressed the research of Dr. Starrett, and how the invention of the chair created a societal transition from a historically active lifestyle to a sedentary one - especially for those that work at a desk all day.
As it turns out, sitting all day causes more physical problems than just poor posture and back pain. According to Starrett and other leading researchers, excess sitting also causes atrophy and degeneration of bones and tissues - particularly in the leg and glute muscles. When your muscles and tissues degenerate, your risk of spine-injury, soft-tissue and joint injury, and osteoporosis all increase significantly.
Ironically, one of the side effects of this condition of degeneration is MORE BACK PAIN, as this study points out.
The introduction of a standing desk helps keep all the body's muscles engaged and active, and helps keep more weight on the bones that become unsupportive while sitting. The result is stronger tissues and bones, lower risk of injury, and a better feeling body. Particularly in the joints!
This might be a great time to mention that standing desks are not a new fad. In fact, some of the world's greatest thinkers were known to stand up while they worked, such as: Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Ben Franklin, and Ernest Hemingway.
These world leaders and top creative thinkers enjoyed standing desks because standing helped get their creative juices flowing and boosted productivity.
But, you don't just have to take Jefferson's and Franklin's word for it (although, not sure why you wouldn't want to). There are plenty of modern studies that suggest standing desks lead to an increase in productivity.
Some found that the intervention of a standing desk can have as much as a 65% increase in productivity - largely caused by many of the previous benefits we've already discussed in this article.
*Click here to read more about how standing desks boost productivity, and the research that has been done on the subject.
With all the previous benefits of a standing desk in mind, it's clear that standing desks improve wellness, help workers improve brain function and productivity rates, and help prevent chronic diseases. All these benefits naturally lead to a longer life for office workers and students.
However, some studies have measured the benefits of standing desks on life expectancy directly. The results are quite positive and show that standing desks can actually help you live longer.
One critical study found that the average life expectancy in the U.S. would increase by 2 years if sitting time were decreased by only 3 hours a day.
Another study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health included 230 desk-based workers and got them to stand while working, sit less, and move more. The results showed making this small change nation-wide might be costly, but it would also save 7,492 "health-adjusted life years."
It’s true that standing desks can't be all sunshine and rainbows, so it's worth taking a moment to pose the question: "Are there disadvantages to purchasing a standing desk?"
First and foremost, standing desks can be more expensive than a regular sitting desk, although the average cost of a standing desk has come down considerably in the last 5-10 years as they have grown in popularity.
It's also worth noting that you probably already have a desk, so there's obviously an added cost if you're going to upgrade to a sit to stand desk - whether you're purchasing an entirely new desk, or a desk converter to sit on top of your current one.
The question you have to answer for yourself, is whether or not all the incremental benefits we discussed above are worth the added cost of a standing desk. It's hard to put a price tag on simply feeling better, but when you consider all of the financial benefits to go along with that - increased productivity, lower cost of health care, etc. - it's hard to make a strong case against an investment in a standing desk.
But what about actually using a standing desk? Are there risks when using a standing desk?
There certainly CAN be, and we would argue that these "disadvantages" are typically the result of someone misusing their desk. That said, these potential issues are nonetheless important to consider and address, if we're going to consider the benefits of a standing desk completely.
Any risk of using a standing desk can be tied to one simple fact: Standing has its dangers - particularly if you stand for too long. The research tells us that standing for extended periods can actually have a similar effect as sitting, leading to back pain, joint discomfort, and higher risk of disease.
But here’s where the case against standing desks falls apart: these are easily avoidable with a modern standing desk. As long as you alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day, most of these problems won’t apply to you. All of the science behind the ill effects of standing is based on occupations where workers stand all day. So don’t be fooled by the misleading articles that claim otherwise.
Now that we've addressed some of the potential disadvantages of a standing desk, let's talk about how you can avoid any problems by using your standing desk appropriately.
Remember, a standing desk isn't a magic wand that will heal a sedentary life. However, if you use a standing desk correctly, you will experience positive benefits.
Here is how to get the most out of your sit to stand desk:
Too much sitting can be detrimental, and so can too much sitting. The solution is simply to alternate between the two positions and move around the office. Let your body be your guide to tell you when you should sit and stand, but here are some ways to know when you should make a change:
Dr. James Levine offers the best advice when it comes to getting the most out of your standing desk. Don't just stand, but move around as much as possible. This includes:
The next secret to experiencing health benefits from a standing desk is to make sure your posture is in check. This includes never locking your knees, keeping your glutes and core engaged, and standing tall with your head held high.
Nail your ergonomics
Finally, take the time to make sure your office environment is ergonomically appropriate. This includes:
Standing desks are not a magic pill, and should not be considered the solution to all of our problems - caused by sitting or not. However, they do have a profound a positive effect on the way we feel, the way we think, on our health and on our happiness - which all make a standing desk well worth the investment.
That's why I created this company. 7 years ago, I purchased a standing desk to help relieve some of my own back problems I was experiencing at the time, and it changed my life. My energy increased, my focus improved, and I found new depths of thought and productivity that I hadn't experienced in a long time. It was a keystone change in my life, and I wouldn't have my own business today, if it weren't for that purchase.
It's true that a diet change is a better way to lose weight and reduce our risk of disease. Or that back pain can be better cured through chiropractic care, physical therapy and stretching.
But the magic of the standing desk is in the simplicity of the solution, relative to the massive benefit we receive.
No deprivation, self-discipline, meal planning, doctors visits or medications required - and the investment is relatively small. All it takes is one simple purchase, and a commitment to using it.
One simple tool can change your life... like it did for me.