Asking For A Friend: Standing desks are all the rage, but that doesn't mean you should never sit

Alternating between sitting and standing may help control blood sugar levels, relieve pressure on the spine and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read November 19, 2021
Continue walking and guided direction concept. Vector illustration.

Whether it’s prolonged sitting or prolonged standing, neither is good for your health. GETTY

Dear Asking For A Friend,

Almost two years in to WFH and many of my friends have added standing desks to their home offices. I have been wondering if it’s worth the money — or is it another one of those passing trends? 

Signed, Stiff Back


Dear Stiff Back,

Standing workstations have become very popular in the last five years but long ago, prominent intellectuals like Ernest Hemingway, Charles Darwin and Thomas Jefferson used their own version of a standing desk to help maintain focus and improve their posture.

There are also more direct health benefits. Multiple studies suggest that when we alternate between sitting and standing positions throughout our working day, it may help control blood sugar levels, relieve pressure on the spine and reduce risk of many ailments, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers. It may also help boost productivity by 50 per cent, according to one study.

But to reap the health benefits associated with working standing up, you must first understand that this piece of office equipment is not meant to replace sitting. Experts recommend standing for just 30 minutes a day to start and working your way up from there. Research even suggests that the ideal sit/stand ratio is in the range of 1:1 to 1:3, which means that you should be standing about 20 to 30 minutes every hour.

Ergonomics guidelines also recommend that the height of the desk be properly adjusted so that the elbows are in a 90 degree position, and the screen is placed roughly 28 inches away from the face at a 20 degree tilt. An anti-fatigue mat that’s placed under the feet can also help prevent leg and back pain while standing — one study reports that people who stand two hours a day on such a mat experience fewer aches and pains.

But whether it’s prolonged sitting or prolonged standing, neither is good for your health. The key is to find balance between the two, add more movement into your day or risk having temporary aches and pains turn into chronic health issues.

The perils of too much sitting

Perhaps you’ve already felt the negative health impacts of sitting at your desk for most of the day — muscle stiffness, especially of the neck and shoulders, poor posture, hip and joint pain, all of which are on the rise since the start of the pandemic. And if you’ve adapted a sedentary lifestyle long before the first lockdown, you may also be at risk for more serious health issues, such as deep vein thrombosis, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, including uterine, lung and colon cancer. Prolonged sitting not only puts 40 per cent more pressure on the spine than standing, according to the Ontario Chiropractic Association, but it could also impact mental health and make you more prone to anxiety and depression.

As tough as sitting too long can be on your body, standing for long periods isn’t great either. According to one study, prolonged standing has also been linked to numerous health complications, including varicose veins, lower back pain, fatigue, and cardiovascular issues. When you’re in one rigid position for most of the day, you’re unable to alternate the muscles that you’re using, and the reduced movement is what could lead to temporary aches and pains or long-term health issues.

According to Ontario chiropractor Dr. Amy Brown, the best way to avoid the negative health impacts of extended sitting or standing is to alternate between the two positions and to build exercise into your day. Daily walks and stretches or some gentle yoga can provide relief and help loosen up stiff muscles in the body.

Getting up to move for just three minutes every hour can help add 24 minutes of activity a day, and over the course of the week, that equals to 150 minutes of movement. Standing can also burn up to 170 calories, and may help prevent weight gain and obesity long-term.

The bottom line is that a standing desk can be a smart investment and may help positively impact your productivity, body, and mind. That said, we all know that the easiest way to stick to a new routine is to choose one that works for your lifestyle and schedule.

“Ideally, we should have options and we can tailor those options to what makes sense in our world,” says Brown.

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