On March 29, 2019, CBC Radio interviewed Dr. Aaron Carroll, Director of the Center for Health Policy, Professionalism and Research, and Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine about the topic. The original article and interview can be accessed here.
According to Dr. Carroll, there is little evidence that standing at a desk all day is better for your health than sitting. This may surprise many, as standing has recently been in the spotlight as a healthier activity, a form of exercise, and even considered a viable option for weight loss at work. This seems like a great alternative to sitting, and studies have linked sitting to morbidities such as cardiovascular disease and even death. Dr. Carroll argues that sitting alone isn’t necessarily the cause, and that standing all day can be worse than sitting. There are several variables to consider when examining this topic.
Sitting studies have argued that sitting is making people unhealthy, rather than arguing that people who are otherwise unhealthy tend to sit more. Many health conditions tend to cause pain and fatigue; Dr. Carroll mentioned cardiovascular disease specifically. This makes sense, as standing requires more effort to circulate blood, and people with heart failure tend to have less tolerance for any increase in circulatory demand. Cardiovascular disease can be secondary to other health conditions, such as diabetes, which can also cause kidney disfunction. Both may lead to foot swelling, and the combined discomfort of edema linked with breathlessness and chest pain would certainly encourage sitting as opposed to standing. Cardiovascular and kidney disease are very prevalent in the overall population, and to Dr. Carroll’s point, time spent standing would likely be greater in individuals before the onset of diseases such as these.
There is no effect of standing on weight loss, and standing is not a form of exercise. Dr. Carroll points out that linking standing to weight loss just doesn’t make sense. Standing itself isn’t a form of exercise. Although standing may increase caloric expenditure, the change is minimal. For instance, over an eight-hour period, the gross energy expenditure of a 150-lb (or 70-kg) person is about 1,008 kCal while sitting, and 1,056 kCal while standing; to burn an additional pound of fat from standing alone, it would take 73 days. According to The American College of Sports Medicine, exercising for sustained weight loss requires about 300 minutes of moderate physical activity per week in overweight individuals, and about 250 minutes per week to keep it off.
Treadmill desks are an entirely different story. Dr. Carroll views treadmill desks as a potentially viable option for those looking to reap the health benefits of exercise while working. Although evidence itself is scarce, this makes sense; one could achieve 60 minutes of brisk walking at a slight incline (enough to be considered moderate intensity exercise) over the course of a day while working at a desk, five days a week. This is great for weight loss, but the practicality of treadmill desks varies by activity. Research suggests that treadmill desks are beneficial during long conference calls and tasks such as e-learning and online training. However, using a treadmill workstation can actually increase awkward risk postures during precision computer tasks, which may lead to musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
For the office, combined sitting, standing, and walking is probably best for health. This agrees with Humantech’s position statement on workplace sitting and standing, which Humantech Ergonomics Engineer Ayla Yi referenced in a previous blog post several months ago. You can view our entire position statement on the matter here.
Dr. Carroll’s advice: if standing is better than sitting for you, then stand. If sitting is better than standing for you, then sit. Ideally, if you can comfortably alternate both and take several walks around the office every day, it will probably be more beneficial than standing or sitting alone.