Standing desks: are they worth it?

Standing desks are increasingly being used by those with back problems who find that sitting all day exacerbates their condition. Manufacturers make bold claims, but can they be trusted? Stacy Simon, senior editor at the American Cancer Society, investigates

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on the American Cancer Society website. 

Chances are, you’ve seen someone working at a standing desk. Maybe you even use one yourself. According to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management, standing desks are the fastest-growing employee benefit in US workplaces. One reason for their popularity is that research has shown that sitting for long periods of time damages your health, even if you get plenty of exercise when you aren’t sitting.

A standing desk is any arrangement of furniture that allows you to stand up while you work at your desk. It can be as simple and inexpensive as placing your computer monitor on top of a box or a stack of books – or it can be as elaborate and pricey as a customised platform that adjusts height at the push of a button. Adjustable-height desks can range in price from a few hundred pounds to thousands for bespoke pieces.

Companies that sell standing desks claim they provide health benefits, including weight loss, reduced back pain, improved mental health, lower blood sugar, lower cholesterol and greater life expectancy. A recent study by Loughborough University found that people using standing desks were, ‘less tired and more engaged’.

A look behind the claims

According to research published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health it’s not clear that standing instead of sitting at a desk all day burns a significant number of calories. The study found that standing burned 88 calories an hour, not much more than the 80 calories an hour burned while sitting; walking burned 210 calories an hour.

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One thing many studies have been clear about is that long hours of sitting are linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer and shorter life – so it makes sense that standing would counteract these risks. However, studies have not yet been done to either prove or disprove these assumptions.

According to Alpa Patel, PhD, strategic director of the Cancer Prevention Study-3 at the American Cancer Society, “Sitting time research is still in its infancy and we are trying to understand whether it’s the total amount that you sit, or how frequently you break up those bouts of sitting, that are related to disease risk. While we continue to learn what is driving this relationship, it’s clear that cutting down on the time you spend sitting is good for your health.”

Some studies have shown that, after eating, blood sugar returns to normal faster in people who have spent more time standing than sitting that day – and many people who use standing desks say it’s helped them with shoulder and back pain.

Many people who use standing desks say it’s helped them with shoulder and back pain.

But it’s also true that standing for long periods of time may cause back, leg or foot pain, rather than relieving it. Experts advise that, if you do try a standing desk, start slowly; stand for just 30 minutes, to an hour, a day and increase gradually.

One thing that is clear, and agreed upon by health experts, is that taking frequent walking breaks – even short ones – while at work can lead to better health and help you live longer.

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