Sitting is the new smoking! The average worker spends 5 hours and 41 minutes sitting at their desk, but an increasingly large body of research is concluding that our sedentary work habits are having a negative impact on our health. While standing desks have been around for over a century, they were considered as eccentric novelties used by the likes of Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, and not suitable for the work setting.
This is all changing as the health benefits of standing while you work are increasingly recognized. So, what are the principal health benefits from standing for a no-sitting work policy?
Research by the Mayo Clinic has demonstrated that using a standing desk, and being free to move, pace around, and even dance a little to background music, significantly reduces the risk of obesity in workers. The study of office workers had two groups, both on an identical diet that had been boosted with an additional 1,000 calories per day more than they had previously been consuming. They were also prohibited from changing their existing exercise habits too, so the only thing that was going to be different between the two groups was that one continued to work sitting down, while the other started to use standing desks. Standing desk participants gained less weight than their sedentary counterparts, though the study also indicated that even if you do work sitting down, taking the opportunity to move, for instance using the stairs instead of an elevator, and helps keep weight gain down.
A second major health benefit of standing rather than sitting down to work is the beneficial impact on your metabolism, and in particular in combating the onset of Type 2 diabetes. The Mayo Clinic study also demonstrated that the benefits of standing rather than sitting went way beyond just keeping weight gain under control. If you stand, and in particular if you move, your body has a better chance at managing its blood sugar levels than if it sedentary. Sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of contracting metabolic syndrome, which in turn dramatically increases the risk of contracting Type 2 diabetes.
The advice is to stand and move, rather than sit and stay – and a standing desk encourages both positive habits to develop.
British research conducted way back in the 1950s identified the link between sitting for long periods of time and cardiovascular disease. They conducted a study of bus drivers (who sat for most of their working day) with bus conductors (who stood for most of their working day) and found the latter had a significantly reduced risk of contracting heart and vascular diseases.
Subsequent studies have demonstrated that adults who on average for 2 more hours each day, have a 125% increased risk of having a heart attack or other cardiovascular issue.
Breast and colon cancer are directly linked to lack of activity, and several studies have identified tentative links between extended sitting and various forms of cancer. A 2011 study showed that prolonged sitting was probably responsible for an additional 49,000 breast cancer cases, and a further 43,000 colon cancer cases.
Even more frightening, the research also suggested that there were also approximately 37,000 additional lung cancer cases, 36,000 cases of prostate cancer, 12,000 cases of endometrial cancer, and 1,800 additional cases of ovarian cancer. All linked to prolonged periods of sitting!
The health benefits of using a standing desk are clear: standing is much better for our health than sitting for prolonged periods of time, and also gives us more freedom to move. Standing itself is not enough to impart optimal health benefits, but if we are already standing, we are much more free to move, and it is moving around, even when we are standing at our desks, which gives the maximum health boost.
Jensen Carlyle is a business writer and researcher, who discovered standing desks while working at JobTraQ, a software company based in Frederick MD.