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Are Standing Desks Worth the Hype?

man standing at his computer work station
Burlingham/Shutterstock

Standing desks might seem like a new trend, but as early as 1797, people were advocating for their use. The fervor for standing desks didn’t grow, however, until sedentary work became the norm.

Advocates of the standing desk promise a long list of benefits. Sitting less purportedly improves mental health, prolongs lifespans, and even boosts job performance. Does research support these effects, or is it all hype?

We took a deep dive into the truth behind standing desks to help you decide if one is worth the investment. Here’s what we found out.

The Claims Behind Standing Desks

The idea behind the standing desk hinges on the idea that sitting for too long is bad for you.

That’s certainly true. If you spend most of your time sitting, researchers have found, you raise your risk of health problems like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and of course, obesity.

What researchers aren’t quite sure of is why sitting for prolonged periods is so harmful. Our lowered use of energy and muscles when we sit is likely what causes problems, but we need more research to be sure.

With that in mind, it seems logical that a standing desk would offer a good alternative to the risks of sitting. But do studies support that idea?

What the Research Says

Research often shows a more complex picture behind logical-sounding ideas. Standing desks are no exception: Studies show their benefits aren’t as clear-cut as they sound.

One argument for standing desks is standing helps you burn more calories. However, studies indicate that standing at work burns only slightly more calories than sitting does. While standing feels more active, it’s still a stationary activity.

Standing desks also aren’t free from potential health risks. If you stand still all day, you might develop pain in your feet, legs, or back—especially at first. Prolonged standing can lead to lower back problems, varicose veins, heart disease, and other health issues. Standing can also make it harder to use the fine motor skills required for some jobs.

However, this doesn’t mean standing desks are all bad. It just means standing all day isn’t a perfect alternative to sitting all day. But there is a way to avoid work-related health problems—and a standing desk can be part of the answer.

The Standing-Desk Solution

man taking a break from his standing desk to work sitting down with his laptop
Burlingham/Shutterstock

Sitting all day is bad for you, and standing all day isn’t much better. Surprisingly, a mixture of sitting and standing can help you avoid the issues with both positions. That’s where the sit-stand desk comes in: a desk that lets you easily change from sitting to standing.

Studies suggest that people who use sit-stand desks see benefits ranging from better job performance to fewer lower back problems. The key is that the workers neither sit nor stand all day, but switch back and forth between the two. Even if you don’t have a desk that you can adjust in place, you can always grab your laptop and sit down (or go stand at a counter-height work surface) to mix it up.

As you switch between sitting and standing, remember to incorporate movement into your workday. Even simply fidgeting while you stand can help your body reap the benefits of not staying sedentary. Periodic walks and other bursts of movement offer significant health benefits that offset most of the issues caused by long periods of sitting or standing. The more active you are outside of work, the less you need to worry about how much time you spend at your desk.

So yes: Standing desks are worth the hype—but only if they give you the option of sitting, too. Changing your position throughout the day will help you avoid all those scary desk-related health problems. And, of course, regular exercise will boost the health benefits of a sit-stand desk even more.

Need help getting that exercise time in? Here’s how to fit in a workout when you can’t hit the gym.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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