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Where Things Stand Today In Regard To Sitting And Standing Desks

Sitting and standing workstations have been used in the office environment for several years now.  The initial reason for these devices to enter the office was primarily due to the awareness of the dangers of sedentary living, i.e. prolonged sitting.  Because of this, these devices are increasingly becoming commonplace.  More and more companies are offering standing options to their employees, and more employees than ever before are using these devices. 

As an ergonomist, I frequently work with companies who offer their employees the option to stand at their workstation, i.e. a fixed standing height desk, or provide a device that allows them to sit or stand at their desk.  I’ve heard many first-hand accounts from employees who swear about benefits they have experienced by standing most of their work day and then I’ve had about the same amount of accounts from employees who tried standing and then returned to sitting because they didn’t feel the benefit of standing. 

The science of prolonged sitting and prolonged standing, i.e. sedentary, static posture is pretty clear in that it is detrimental to some degree.  Studies have shown prolonged sitting may lead to increased risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, diabetes and lower back pain.  Studies on prolonged standing have shown the increased risk for cardiovascular and circulation issues (especially in the legs), greater body fatigue and physical conditions such as low back, knee or foot pain. 

The science of sit-stand workstations and the associated advantages and/or disadvantages is not as clear.  I will share with you the conclusions of 4 recent studies for why things are not clear.  A recent study that looked at the effects of standing for 2 hours was published in the Journal of Ergonomics.  The authors concluded that “prolonged standing for 2 hours continuously discomfort increased in all body areas), reaction time and mental state deteriorated while creative problem-solving improved.  Prolonged standing should be undertaken with caution.”  Another study looked at the effects of alternating postures on cognitive performance of workers.  The authors concluded: “Prior reports indicated health-related benefits based on alternated (sit/stand) body postures. Nevertheless, their effect on cognitive performance is unknown. This randomised controlled trial showed that working in alternating body postures did not influence reaction time, concentration performance, working speed or workload perception in the short term.”  This third study looked at productivity changes in a call center that had installed “stand capable desks” over a 6 month period.  The authors concluded: “These findings suggest important benefits of employing stand-capable desks in the work force to increase productivity. Prospective studies that include employee health status, perceptions of (dis)comfort and preference over time, along with productivity metrics, are needed to test the effectiveness of stand-capable desks on employee health and performance.”  The last study looked at the effects of four different sit-stand workstation use schedules.  The authors concluded: “This study shows that office workers prefer sit/stand durations in the range between 1:1 and 3:1. Longer standing may have the potential to reduce muscle fatigue. However, active break-time activities may be more effective in reducing muscle fatigue and foot swelling.”

As you can see by reading just the conclusions the benefits physically and cognitively to sit-stand workstations are not conclusive.  The details of studies themselves have weaknesses such as low subject numbers, limited time duration, etc.  So, where do we stand with sit-stand workstations?  When I’m asked for my expert/experienced opinion on sit-stand workstations, I always provide both the pros and cons of sitting and prolonged standing, i.e. they both can be detrimental to health.  The best advice is to alternate posture on a schedule that produced the most comfort to that person—that schedule will be different for each person.  There is no hard, set rule for minutes spent sitting and standing.  When I’m in the office I prefer to stand more than I sit; however, my husband who works with computers prefers to sit more than stand. Then the next part of my advice is to encourage movement.  As the conclusion of the last study cited above alluded to, it is more important to include active break-time activities during one’s workday than it is to be concerned with the minutes spent in one or the other sedentary posture.  Movement is the most vital key to a healthy, productive office.