The truth behind standing desks

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me on Twitter  @RobShmerling

Are you reading this while standing at your desk? There’s a good chance that you are — standing desks are all the rage.

These desks allow you to work at your “desk job” while standing rather than sitting in a chair. They can be custom built (for thousands of dollars) or you can convert a regular desk into a standing desk at no cost by elevating your computer — one of my colleagues simply placed his computer on a stack of books. Sales of standing desks have soared in recent years; in many cases their sales have far outpaced those of conventional desks.

Personally, I love the idea — rather than sitting all day staring at a computer screen, surely it would be better to be standing (while staring at a computer screen). But, I also love the idea of studying some of the assumptions surrounding standing desks. A common one is this: certainly it takes more effort — and extra calories — to remain upright rather than sit, and over a course of days or weeks those extra calories would add up to something significant. But is it true that a standing desk can help you avoid weight gain or even lose excess weight?

That’s just what researchers publishing in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health tried to answer. (Yes, there is such a journal.) They fitted 74 healthy people with masks that measured oxygen consumption as a reflection of how many calories they burned while doing computer work, watching TV, standing, or walking on a treadmill. Here’s what they found:

  • While sitting, study subjects burned 80 calories/hour — about the same as typing or watching TV
  • While standing, the number of calories burned was only slightly higher than while sitting — about 88 calories/hour
  • Walking burned 210 calories/hour.

In other words, use of a standing desk for three hours burns an extra 24 calories, about the same number of calories in a carrot. But walking for just a half hour during your lunch break could burn an extra 100 calories each day.

Prior reports of the calories burned by standing versus sitting suggested a much higher calorie burn rate for standing, but this new study actually measured energy expenditure and likely represents a more accurate assessment.

Reasons to stand by your standing desk

While the new study suggests that a standing desk is unlikely to help with weight loss or avoiding weight gain, there may be other reasons to stand while you work. Advocates of standing desks point to studies showing that after a meal, blood sugar levels return to normal faster on days a person spends more time standing. And standing, rather than sitting, may reduce the risk of shoulder and back pain.

Other potential health benefits of a standing desk are assumed based on the finding that long hours of sitting are linked with a higher risk of

  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease
  • cancer (especially cancers of the colon or breast)
  • premature death.

But “not sitting” can mean many different things — walking, pacing, or just standing — and as the new study on energy expenditure shows, the health effects of these may not be the same. For most of these potential benefits, rigorous studies of standing desks have not yet been performed. So, the real health impact of a standing desk is not certain.

If you’re going to stand at your desk…

Keep in mind that using a standing desk is like any other “intervention” — it can come with “side effects.” For example, if you suddenly go from sitting all day to standing all day, you run the risk of developing back, leg, or foot pain; it’s better to ease into it by starting with 30 to 60 minutes a day and gradually increasing it. Setting a timer to remind you when to stand or sit (as many experts recommend) can disrupt your concentration, reduce your focus, and reduce your efficiency or creativity. You may want to experiment with different time intervals to find the one that works best for you.

It’s also true that certain tasks — especially those requiring fine motor skills — are more accurately performed while seated. So, a standing desk may not be a good answer for everyone who sits a lot at work.

What’s next?

We have seen dramatic changes in the work environment in recent years. These include open floor plans and inflatable exercise balls instead of chairs, as well as standing desks. I have colleagues who have installed a “treadmill desk” that allows them to work on a computer or video conference while walking on a treadmill. There are advantages, and perhaps some risk, that come with each of these changes. But, before we accept them as better — or healthy — we should withhold judgment until we have the benefit of more experience and, ideally, well-designed research.

Okay, you may now sit down.

Comments:

  1. KOrigin

    Spinal injuries and spinal compression are another reason to incorporate standing into what would normally be a sitting-all-day work routine. Standing all day can have its drawbacks – ask a grocery cashier – like anything done for prolonged periods of time. I have benefited from being able to both sit and stand in my work place and physically could not continue to work if I were not able to stand at a computer. While some people may look to standing desks as a kind of “diet fad”, they are very beneficial for those of us with spinal injuries or other restrictions that even regular exercise cannot mitigate.

  2. Pfungwa Ndoro

    very good article

  3. Richard Winett

    All of this is basically unnecessary if people actually did some exercise at relatively high intensity. This can be as simple as rapid stair climbing within an established protocol, or more formal interval and/or resistance training in a gym or health club. The time required is not very much and this only is two or three times per week plus some walking on other days and every hour or so standing up for a few minutes while working. And, the benefits of actual exercise far surpass a standing desk or treadmill desk.

  4. Jordan Gx

    I lost 50 pounds in less than 18 months using an under-the-desk treadmill as my main tool, building up from 0.6 mph (difficult) to a joyous and more comfortable 1.6 mph. I can type at 1.8 mph (up to 2.2 if just word processing as opposed to spreadsheets where 1.4-1.6 seems to be the comfortable max) and speak easily at 2.8. Handwriting requires not walking. For the first nine months I did not change my diet and did no other exercise … and lost the first 30 of those 50 pounds. I question the parsimonious mathematical assessments: 200 calories per hour (your number) for one hour per day x 17.5 days = 3,500 = one pound = more than 13 pounds per year for 240 work days … and that’s not accounting for weight and how many steps constitutes one calorie at varying weights (one might consider the Step Diet, at least for comparison sake), which could raise (or lower) that number. Still, 13 pounds is 13 pounds, and the benefits described don’t account for incrementally-improved metabolic rate (every percent counts), along with all the other incremental benefits each micro-improvement makes. The Journal you cite may be narrowly correct, but its analysis is woefully incomplete. The entire feed-forward mechanism is omitted. A stand-up desk is not a panacea, nor a single-source solution (indeed, it can create foot and back problems) but it is an important tool the benefits of which go well beyond the mere direct weight loss it may provide. Similarly for under-desk bicycles or peddlers. (I do not have any beneficial interest in any companies providing such products — I just know what has worked for me and for many of my clients.)

  5. dpschannel

    nice article

  6. Benny

    What do you think about back and neck issues, from sitting all day? Could the standing in the office impact these issues positively?

    • Kevin Flaherty

      Most certainly yes. I started standing part time after having a constantly tight neck and shoulder pain that I was about to see an orthopedist for. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, so I didn’t want to spend much money. I found Readydesk for $160 and then built a similar one out of wood as a hobby.

      The results have been great! Having different posture options quickly cured my shoulders and neck without causing back issues. I do about half standing and half sitting. I bought wireless computer peripherals to make switching easier. I totally recommend trying standing for anyone with desk ergonomics issues!

  7. Joey Callahan

    I’ve read sitting for hours is the “NEW” smoking. Also, the calorie thought is based on the calories in and calories out approach. How do we measure the approach to standing with the type of calories consummed? I.E. a person using a standing desk doing LCHF vs a Vegan, vs a calorie counter?

  8. Dr Mark Rowe

    Very interesting article. From your numbers, standing burns an extra 8 calories per hour over sitting. This equates to 320 calories a week, or about 5 pounds of fat a year.
    And it may also become a catalyst and tipping point for further positive health behaviours as part of an organisational wellbeing program
    Best wishes
    Dr Mark Rowe