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Do Stand-or-Sit Desks Aid Fitness?
New evidence questions the benefits of adjustable down-or-up desks

01/10/2019 By Michelle Lee; edited by Craig Weatherby

Many people have started using adjustable stand-or-sit desks.

Their hope is that spending part of the day standing will help them feel better, reduce their metabolic health risks, and burn more calories.

I shared those hopes, so after getting an Apple Watch as a gift, one of the goals I set within it was to achieve a daily “Stand Hour”.

Easy, I thought — but here's how Apple describes that goal: “Complete your daily Stand goal by standing up and moving around for at least 1 minute during 12 different hours in the day. Even if you stand all day, you still need to move around.”

And Apple's definition of the Stand Hour goal is supported by new evidence that standing for part of the day may not bring many metabolic and consequent calorie-burning benefits.

Before we look at that new evidence, let’s quickly review the risks of Americans’ generally sedentary lifestyles.

Why your chair may be deadly
There’s no doubt that regular exercise or other vigorous activity helps prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers.

But even if you exercise regularly, sitting for long periods of time can be debilitating — and even prove deadly over the long term. For more than that, see Is Your Chair Killing You? and The Silent but Deadly Effects of Sitting.

And even if you work out for 30 to 45 minutes, that leaves about 16 waking hours when you may be sitting a lot without fully realizing it.

Research suggests that of that many of us spend well more than half of our time sitting or lying down, almost completely inactive.

Sadly, there’s ample evidence that waking hours dominated by inactivity — which usually means sitting — can undo the benefits of exercise.

We all need at least 30 minutes of moderate activity every day — whether that’s planned exercise or vigorous activity around the house.

Aussie study underscores risk of too much sitting
Research involving more than 200,000 Australians found that those who sat 11 or more hours per day (“inactive” people) were 40% more likely to die within three years, compared with those who sat for fewer than four hours a day (“active” people).

And, among the inactive participants, the ones who sat the most were 1/3 more likely to die compared to those who were just a bit more active.

(The benefits of sitting less were calculated after the study’s results had been adjusted to account for the beneficial metabolic effects of healthy weight, being physically active, and being in overall good health.)

The study’s lead author, Dr. Hidde van der Ploeg, highlighted the implications of their findings: “That morning walk or trip to the gym is still necessary, but it’s also important to avoid prolonged sitting.”

UK study finds standing desks don't boost calorie-burning
Prompted by recent findings about the downsides of sitting at a desk all day, many people — and some companies — have switched to adjustable stand-or-sit desks.

However, standing for part of the day may not yield the intended benefits — and it can cause its own health concerns: see “The downsides of standing at a desk”, in Stand, Move, or Fidget While You Work?.

While standing at a desk has been widely presumed healthier than sitting, not much is known about the metabolic (calorie-burning) effects of standing vs. sitting.

A recent study from the UK’s University of Bath shows that, compared with sitting, standing burns only about 9 extra calories per hour — the number in a single stalk of celery.

During this study, the researchers measured the calorie-burning rates of 46 health men and women while they were lying down, standing, or sitting for 20 minutes — with each position being tested on a separate day.

The British researchers noted that use of stand-or-sit desks typically increases time spent standing by only two hours a day, which at most will only burn 20 extra calories daily.

That daily gain only adds up to burning an extra 130 calories per week. To put that in perspective, there are 100 calories in these amounts of various foods:

  • 1/3 hot dog
  • 9 potato chips
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 25 strawberries
  • 1/3 cheeseburger
  • 1 oz cheddar cheese
  • 5 pieces grilled shrimp
  • 2.6 oz sockeye salmon
  • 2 cups watermelon chunks
  • 1 Tablespoon peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup coleslaw or potato salad

Unsurprisingly, the UK team questioned the effectiveness of standing desks as tactic for weight control or loss.

As the study’s lead author, Prof. James Betts, said, the slight calorie-burning advantages standing “… would not result in ... a worthwhile rate of weight loss.”.

Study co-author Dr. Javier Gonzalez expressed the team's doubts in practical terms: “To put this difference in context, it would require an additional 20 hours of standing time, on average, to burn off a medium latte.”

So, it’s looking like standing desks probably don’t bring substantial health benefits — and they can cause some health problems.

To protect against the ill effects of excessive sitting, just get up for a few minutes every hour to quickly exercise, stretch, and/or just walk around briskly.

And be sure to engage in substantial, frequent exercise — fast-walking, gardening, running, swimming, bicycling, yoga, strength training, dancing, or whatever suits your fitness fancy!


Sources

  • Betts JA, Smith HA, Johnson-Bonson DA, Ellis TI, Dagnall J, Hengist A, Carroll H, Thompson D, Gonzalez JT, Afman GH. The Energy Cost of Sitting versus Standing Naturally in Man. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2018; 1 DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001841
  • Hamilton MT, Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Zderic TW, Owen N. Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting: Inactivity Physiology and the Need for New Recommendations on Sedentary Behavior. Curr Cardiovasc Risk Rep. 2008;2(4):292-298.
  • van der Ploeg HP, Chey T, Korda RJ, Banks E, Bauman A. Sitting time and all-cause mortality risk in 222 497 Australian adults. Arch Intern Med. 2012 Mar 26;172(6):494-500. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2174. PubMed PMID: 22450936.