Lately, I can’t count how many times, I’ve heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” and that standing desks have been hyped as the solution. I wanted to know if they were actually effective.
It seems that 8-hours of workplace sitting is associated with increased rates of back pain, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Sitting causes tight hips, which pull on your back, and tight gluteals, which also pull on your back. Sitting in the workplace also encourages poor postures which contribute to upper and lower back pain. Even daily exercise can’t negate the effects of a 9-5 sedentary schedule. Standing desks are touted as the new solution to these problems, and I was curious what all the fuss is about.
In this post, I would like to focus on the consequences of sitting on back pain, a common problem in the workplace. X-ray studies confirm that typical sitting postures put your low back out of alignment. Sitting decreases the natural curvature of your low back and increases pressure on the discs in your spine. Low back pain has a staggering 90% incidence rate, and with people spending on average 7.7 hours in a seated position, it’s no wonder why this problem is so common. In contrast, standing restores the natural spinal curves and decreases disc pressure.
Standing desks have been hyped as the answer, but I wanted to know if they were actually effective.
From the preliminary research, it seems that they are. However, there can always be too much of a good thing.
One of the biggest benefits to standing desks in the workplace is increased movement. To mitigate distraction, a worker at a standing desk is much more likely to take a walk around the office than his or her sitting colleague, who would likely click through several web pages instead. A standing desk increases walking time and daily steps. This non-exercise activity is a huge predictor of healthy weight, perhaps even more so than intentional exercise, studies show. Healthier weight means less pressure on the joints, including those of your back.
A standing desk will likely improve your postural alignment and decrease back pain. According to one study, differences in spinal curvature between sitting and standing could vary by as much as 43 degrees.
A study comparing workers with standing-sitting desks versus workers with sitting-only desks over 6 months shows that those with the option to stand did indeed stand more; and had lower blood pressure and Body Mass Index. Other studies confirm that standing and sitting-to-standing use more energy during the day.
Surprisingly, I have not seen much of a benefit on cognitive function or productivity, although anecdotally it seems that standing desks can increase working time. The research is still new, and so far it is mixed with regards to worker productivity and happiness.
While standing desks seem like the solution to the sitting problem, we quickly forget the plethora of problems that plague workers in prolonged standing positions. Retail and healthcare workers, to name a couple, are at increased risk of low back pain, neck and shoulder discomfort, varicose veins, foot pain, and even poor reproductive outcomes such as preterm birth and spontaneous abortion.
Many recommendations have surfaced to decrease standing discomfort, such as raising one leg on a stool, anti-fatigue mats, insoles, and other devices and techniques. All these tools lead me to believe that, as usual, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
Lastly, it does not appear that a standing desk is a panacea for back health. It seems that the effect of a standing desk on back pain is related to posture; if you still have terrible posture when standing, the back pain will remain.
There’s a substantial body of research suggesting that prolonged sitting in the workplace should be broken up periodically to reduce upper and lower back pain, as well as risk of diabetes and heart disease. One study showed that 20 ninety-second breaks in an 8-hour period was enough to cause favourable changes in health parameters such as blood pressure and body mass index. The best recommendations advocate for alternations between sitting and standing throughout your day, as the movements between sitting and standing, one study shows, burn more energy than standing alone. Even a 90-second break every half-hour can be effective.
Human beings were meant to move. The studies on the negative effects of prolonged standing and sitting support this. If a standing desk facilitates more steps, which it does, then it is a wise tool to incorporate into the workplace.
To decrease back pain and reap the many benefits of movement while working, ask your company for an ergonomics assessment or purchase a standing-sitting desk for your home office – there are a wide variety available at many price points. It may take some adjustment at first, but your body will thank you.