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While you may be used to it, sitting at a desk all day isn’t the best for your health. Among other things, sitting for long periods of time has been linked to a slew of health issues, including heart disease and stroke. That’s why many people have turned to standing desks.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the average American who is aged 12 and up logs between eight to 10 hours sitting and doing other things that require little energy. And, the older you get, the more likely you are to sit, the NIH says.
If you have a desk job, though, logging long hours sitting can be somewhat unavoidable.
“For people who work sitting down all day, it’s recommended that they stand up, walk around and stretch every 30 to 40 minutes,” says Labros Sidossis, Ph.D., chair of the department of kinesiology and health in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “But plenty of people don’t do that. If you can’t, standing while you work is not a bad idea in that it breaks up this continuous sitting down, which is not good for your health.”
But what’s so bad about sitting, anyway? And how might a standing desk help? Here’s what you need to know.
Sitting has been called “the new smoking” for a reason. One in four Americans sits for more than eight hours a day, according to a study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in JAMA. Of the nearly 6,000 adults surveyed, four in 10 said they’re physically inactive and one in 10 said they’re both physically inactive and sit for more than eight hours a day.
That’s a problem, says Fletcher Zumbusch, a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, Calif. “Nothing is inherently wrong with sitting in itself — the problem is with the number of hours we spend doing it,” Zumbusch says.
One study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology analyzed data from 149,077 participants over a nearly nine-year period and found that those who logged eight hours or more of sitting a day had a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and any cause, especially if they weren’t physically active as well.
But a 2017 study of nearly 8,000 Americans published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that, no matter how much you exercise, sitting for long periods of time increases your risk of dying early from any cause. Essentially, the study determined, you could go to the gym on a daily basis and still have a high risk of early death if you spend a lot of your day sitting.
The American Cancer Society has also found a link between sitting and dying early. The group conducted a study using data from the American Cancer Society CPS-II Nutrition Cohort, which followed 127,554 people who had no major chronic diseases when they joined the group for 21 years. During the study’s follow-up, 48,784 people had died. After analyzing the data, the study’s researchers found that the people who sat the most had the highest risk of dying from cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, suicide, lung disease, liver disease, peptic ulcer and other digestive diseases, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, nervous disorders and musculoskeletal disorders. Specifically, people who sat for six or more hours a day had a 19 percent higher rate of death from all causes combined compared to people who sat for less than three hours a day.
- The study’s authors didn’t determine in their research why sitting increased the risk of early death, but they had a few theories: sitting might take the place of daily activity. As a result, the researchers theorized, people might be doing less light levels of daily activity that could potentially lower the risk of health issues.
- Sitting may be linked with other unhealthy behaviors. People who sit for long periods of time could be doing things like snacking while watching TV, the researchers said.
- Sitting has a negative impact on hormones. The time people spend sitting can have a negative impact on the body’s hormone levels and the way the immune system works, the researchers said.
Ultimately, research has repeatedly found that sitting for hours at a time or spending most of the day sitting isn’t good for several areas of your health.
Sitting for longer periods of time can also be bad for your back.
Back pain is no joke: A review of data from 142,377 patients published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that back pain was the third most common reason why Americans visit the doctor. And spending the bulk of your day sitting can contribute to that, Zumbusch says.
When you sit, the muscles in the front of your hip (known as hip flexors) rest in a shortened position, Zumbusch explains. At the same time, the muscles on the backside of your hip joint (your gluteals) are in a stretched position. “Due to the amount of time spent in this position, our muscles adapt and our hip flexors get tight while our gluteals become lengthened,” Zumbusch says. “In other words, our hips lose flexibility.”
Your hip joints and pelvis are the “middlemen” between your lower body and back and, when the muscles surrounding the hip joint become inflexible when you stand up after sitting, it can put undue pressure on your spine when you walk, Zumbusch says. That can eventually lead to back pain or aggravate existing back pain.
The Cornell University Department of Ergonomics also says that 90 percent more pressure is put on your back when you sit vs. stand. There are a few factors that go into this, including the design of your chair and how you actually sit in the chair. But, whatever the cause, sitting can be tough on your back.
A standing desk may help improve back and joint pain.
If you struggle with back pain, a standing desk may help. “Standing desks can help decrease back pain due to major relief of the pressure on the nerves,” says Medhat Mikhael, M.D., pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Standing desks can also help lower your risk of weight gain and obesity, which could further tax your back, and help keep you moving, Mikhael says.
Standing desks can also help back and joint pain in more indirect ways. “Using a standing desk promotes more muscle activity and, thus, better circulation compared to a traditional desk,” says Zumbusch.
Not only that, spending less time sitting and more time standing helps keep your hips from becoming tight.
“This is important because loss of hip mobility necessitates undue stress being placed on adjacent joints in order to still handle the demands required of the body with any given task or movement,” Zumbusch adds. “This added stress can lead to the accelerated development of pain at the joints of the low back, hips and knees.”
A standing desk isn’t a miracle cure for weight loss, but it may help you drop pounds over time.
A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health took 74 people and fitted them with masks that measured oxygen consumption (which helped determine how many calories they burned). The study participants wore these masks while they did computer work, watched TV, stood and walked on a treadmill. The researchers found that, when participants sat, they burned about 80 calories an hour. When they stood, they burned about 88 calories an hour.
Yes, it’s not a huge difference, but those little calories can add up over time. If you used a standing desk for five hours a day, five days a week, you’d burn an extra 200 calories. After four weeks, you’d burn an extra 800 calories, and that can ultimately contribute to weight loss.
A standing desk isn’t a miracle cure, but it can help improve your health.
Standing desks have plenty of potential benefits, but it’s unclear right now if merely using one will help boost your overall health. Researchers determined as much in a meta-analysis of 53 studies published in the journal Applied Ergonomics. The study’s researchers found that standing desks helped change behaviors in users, but the changes only had a “mild” effect on people’s overall health. However, standing desks seemed most effective for helping people with discomfort, the researchers noted.
It’s worth pointing out that most of these studies were short — the studies were only done for a week or month — and they generally used young and healthy participants. The study’s authors even stated that it’s important for standing desks to be studied for longer periods of time, and with older and overweight workers, to see what kind of lasting impact they can have.
It’s easy to assume you simply stand at the desk all day and work, but Sidossis says that’s not advised — at least, not at first. If you sat at a desk beforehand, he recommends building up to using a standing desk. “Moving from sitting down for six to eight hours to just standing can cause problems with the back, neck, legs and feet,” he says.
How to use a standing desk
Instead of moving from sitting during your entire workday to standing all day, Sidossis recommends standing at the desk for a half-hour, sitting down for a half-hour and standing again. Then, repeat. “You can then stand for longer periods of time and work your way up,” he says. Some standing desks allow for this to be done easily thanks to features that allow you to adjust heights, either manually or with a button.
When you use a standing desk, Sidossis says it’s important to listen to your body. “If you feel pain — especially sharp pain — in your back and feet, sit down and relax a little bit and try again later,” he says.
Once you build up your standing desk stamina, it’s still good to sit a little, Zumbusch says. “Using a standing desk for too long without rest can lead to fatigue of our postural muscles,” he explains. “In order to give the muscles a rest, our body cleverly compensates by adjusting our own body position such that we remain standing using passive structures like joint capsules and bones. Habitually relying entirely on passive structures can also lead to pain as those structures wear and break down.”
Because of this, Zumbusch recommends that you avoid standing in the same position for longer than two hours.
Overall, experts say using a standing desk can be a positive experience. “Spending more time standing each day can be a very positive start to a healthier and more active lifestyle if done correctly,” Zumbusch says.
While the exact health benefits of a standing desk are still not totally known, the fact is that standing at times during the day almost certainly has at least some effect on your overall health, even if that effect is small. Because of that, it’s well worth investing in a standing desk.
Of course, there are dozens of standing desk models out there, and they’re not all created equal. That, however, is why we’ve put together this guide. Here are the best standing desks you can buy.
Vari Electric Standing Desk
Want to ensure that you get the sturdiest standing desk out there? The Varidesk ProDesk 60 Electric may well be the standing desk for you. Sure, it’s a little more expensive than the Uplift Bamboo Standing Desk, but for some, it may be worth the extra cash. Like other standing desks, this desk comes with a programmable height adjuster and works electrically, so you don’t have to worry about cranking it or manually adjusting it.
Vivo Height Adjustable Standing Desk
Not everyone wants to replace their entire desk with a new standing desk. Some prefer to simply add a desk converter to their setup, which heightens the overall workspace and allows users to stand while working. The Vivo Height Adjustable Standing Desk is available in a few different sizes too — plus there are a manual version and an electric version, which makes it even more convenient for daily use. The desk also has a dedicated keyboard tray, plus is big enough for a laptop and monitor. Last but not least, the Vivo Height Adjustable Standing Desk is aimed at being easy to assemble, which is always helpful.
Want a convertible standing desk with a little more class? The Flexispot M2MG is worth looking into. The desk is built from nice mahogany and comes in at 35 inches wide, which is more than enough for most people. It also has a keyboard tray to make for comfortable typing and has 12 different height levels, which means it’s a good option for people of all different heights. The desk is a little pricier than other convertible desks, but if you like the design and don’t mind spending the cash, then it’s worth the money.