A brief perspective on the use of sit-to-stand desks for office workstations

The idea that sedentary work is a detriment to a person’s health is well documented. Research shows that sitting work leads to increases in obesity and other related health issues, and that increases in workday physical activity, even at low levels, provide a benefit [1-4]. This has led to a proliferation of products designed to deal with “sitting disease”. In particular, it is very common for sit-to-stand desks to be requested in office settings. We often have clients tell us they would prefer to have a standing desk to a seated workstation because they want to have “more movement in their workday”, and “increase the calories burned”. While standing desks have benefits in terms of varying postures and loads, the idea that they allow movement and increase energy expenditure is somewhat of a myth.

Once an employee enters a standing posture at a sit-to-stand desk and performs his/her work operations they remain relatively stationary. While there are subtle changes because of postural sway and shifting, the employee does not walk or step more than 1m to either side. These static standing postures can provide a stretch for the muscles, and relive some of the compression placed on tissues during sitting – and this is certainly a positive! However, there is no evidence that standing leads to increased caloric expenditure when compared to sitting postures [5]. Therefore, static standing is not an intervention that is likely to target the underlying energy expenditure and metabolic issues associated with ‘sitting disease’. Furthermore, prolonged static standing postures are associated with the development of discomfort in the back [6-8], in the lower limb [9, 10] and increase the risk of developing peripheral vascular disorders [11, 12]. Standing for a little while is a positive for musculoskeletal health, but overexposure can lead to problems, just like seated postures.

Sit-to-stand desks are very useful for individuals who have specific conditions or discomforts that are aggravated by exposure to prolonged sitting. They can vary their postures to prevent exceeding a continuous duration that will lead to discomfort, or negative physical outcomes. For example, they might rotate between sitting and standing every 20-30 minutes. However, if a sit-to-stand desk is being requested as a means of increasing movement in a workday, other intervention strategies are more appropriate. For example, regularly taking 1-2 minute “walking microbreaks” allows the employee to move about the work area, remove some of the strain associated with sitting, and increase their activity during the workday. Other strategies might be to place printers and filing areas away from the employee’s workstation to promote frequent movement throughout the workday, and ensure excessively long durations of sitting are avoided. Other strategies might include company exercise initiatives during breaks or lunch periods.

Movement in a workday has benefits to an employee’s health, but we must consider the methods and tools we apply to achieve increased activity in the office. More research and policy reviews on this topic are needed.

What do you think? Comment are always welcomed!



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