Are Sit-Stand Desks Overrated?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

You’ve probably seen commercials touting the health benefits of sit-stand desks. Experts say being able to stand occasionally – instead of sitting at an office desk all day -- helps prevent back pain, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and other chronic health conditions.

There may be some truth to that, but some of the health claims range from silly to the absurd.

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking. We are sitting ourselves to death,” James Levine, MD, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, told the Los Angeles Times. “The chair is out to kill us.”

Is sitting really that dangerous? It is if you believe Australian researchers, who came to the eye-opening conclusion that sitting for one hour reduces life expectancy by 22 minutes. Their study was about people who watch a lot of television, but it is often cited by sit-stand desk manufacturers.

One desk manufacturer funded a study — which is mysteriously being promoted by the CDC — that looked into the psychological benefits of sit-stand desks. The study found that standing more often at work will not only relieve back pain, but make you feel healthier, happier and improve your self-esteem.

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Minimal Health Benefits

Just how reliable is this industry-promoted research?

“There has been a great deal of scientific research about sit-stand desks in the past few years, but we have only scratched the surface of this topic,” says April Chambers, PhD, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. “I wanted to gather what we know so far and figure out the next steps for how can we use these desks to better benefit people in the workplace.”

Chambers and her colleagues reviewed 53 studies on sit-stand desks and published their findings in the journal Applied Ergonomics. Their research focused on the impact of the desks on behavior, physiology, psychology, work performance, discomfort and posture.

“The study found only minimal impacts on any of those areas, the strongest being changes in behavior and discomfort,” said co-author Nancy Baker, ScD, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Tufts University.

“There are health benefits to using sit-stand desks, such as a small decrease in blood pressure or low back pain relief, but people simply are not yet burning enough calories to lose weight with these devices,” added Chambers.

One of the biggest flaws in current studies is that most were done with young and healthy subjects who were asked to use the desk for a week or month at most. Researchers say it would be beneficial to perform longer studies with middle-aged or overweight workers to get a more accurate measure of the desks’ impact on cardiovascular health and weight loss.

Further study is also needed on desk height, monitor height, the amount of time standing, and the use of anti-fatigue floor mats to soften the blow of so much standing. 

“There are basic ergonomic concepts that seem to be overlooked,” said Chambers. “Many workers receive sit-stand desks and start using them without direction. I think proper usage will differ from person to person, and as we gather more research, we will be better able to suggest dosage for a variety of workers.”

Sit-stand desks range in price from inexpensive models for $179 to nearly $1,000 for motorized adjustable desks that come with settings for different users.

If you’re thinking of buying a sit-stand desk, a good place to start your research is online. In the YouTube video below, David Zhang rates some of desks he’s tried over the past year. David likes having a standing desk, but has doubts about their health benefits and says the desks do not replace the need for a good old-fashioned office chair.