People + Process = Performance

If Sitting Is the “New” Smoking, Is Standing the “Old” Smoking?

Standing in the office setting has become the “thing” to do since so many studies and articles have been published about the negative effects of prolong sitting.  Note: I’ve done many blogs on “sitting disease” and I encourage you to use the search function of my website to read more.  Sitting has be termed the “new smoking”.  There is no doubt that a sedentary lifestyle in the workplace or at home is not healthy.  There has been a rush to replace prolonged sitting in the office with prolonged standing, i.e. standing workstations.  Let’s not forget that over 75% of non-office workers are required to stand for more than 75% of their day.  Those workers would love to trade places with the office workers because they do have issues from prolonged standing.  The question is, “Is prolonged standing the “old” smoking” with long term health consequences?  It appears so. 


A recent study published in the journal Human Factors, Long-Term Muscle Fatigue After Standing Work, explores the consequences on the lower extremities and subjective discomfort of prolonged standing.  In the short term, prolonged standing is associated with reports of fatigue, leg discomfort and back pain.  However, the effects of prolonged standing over the long term, i.e. days, weeks, months, and years, has received relatively little attention to date.  This study attempted to quantify what happens with prolonged standing.


To summarize, the researchers had 2 groups of different ages (young-between 18-30 years old, and old-50 years old and older) stand for 5 hour periods.  They got to sit down for 5 minutes every hour and had a 30 minutes rest/sitting break.  The results showed significant long term fatigue following the 5 hour “workday” even with periodic rest breaks.  It should be noted that these effects were the same regardless of age. 


Highlights of the study that I found to be noteworthy:

  • Fatigue has been shown to alter motor control/movement and postural control.  This was observed in this study and others.  It may be assumed that changes in posture, even subtle, resulting from fatigue contributes to changes in the low back-hip relationship, which in the long term may contribute to low-back disorders. This assumption is in line with the perspective that fatigue is a precursor of musculoskeletal disorders
  • There was no evidence that fatigue had developed after 2 hours of standing work with 5 min seated rest half way through. This 2 hour standing work duration including the rest break may be acceptable, but 5 hours with the tested rest cycle may present some risk. It is expected that after a common 8-hr work shift, the long-lasting effects of fatigue from standing work will be more pronounced than found in this study.
  • The perception of lower back and lower-limb discomfort was significantly higher immediately after standing work than at baseline. However, the perception of discomfort had vanished 30 min afterwards, except for minor residual discomfort in the lower legs area for the older group. This drop, taken alone, would indicate a recovery after 30 min of rest. However, the apparent discrepancy between the majority of subjective evaluations and the fatigue objective measure does not mean an absence of significant fatigue. This phenomenon was in agreement with previous findings. The results support the perspective that subjective perception may not be a good indicator of the long-term effects of fatigue.


The bottom line is this:  Current work practices by traditional standing jobs and by new standing office workers may not be enough to prevent fatigue, and this long-lasting muscle fatigue may contribute to musculoskeletal disorders of the lower extremities and back pain.  It is obvious that prolonged sitting and prolonged standing are not optimal for human health, nor for productivity and job performance.  There needs to be a balance between sitting, standing and moving. 


Does your job and/or the jobs of your employees allow this balance, i.e. no more than 2 hours with a rest break in between in a position?  If not, what can you do to change that?  How much is not having balance costing you--your performance?