Are standing desks good for you or not?

 

Charlotte, my cat, safe holidays

A few years ago, I just HAD to have a standing desk. The biggest problem was that it didn’t have much of a workspace. What it did have was usually occupied by my “assistant” Charlotte.

The other issue was that when I’m writing, I tend to get into a zone and it just wasn’t happening as easily in the standing position. To solve that problem, my husband found me a lovely tall office chair. Kind of defeats the purpose of a standing desk, though, doesn’t it!

Standing desk study

We’ve been told that sitting is really bad for us — supposedly, it’s the new smoking. But a week or so ago, I read about an Australian study that determined standing desks might not be so good for you. I was surprised to hear that. The study suggested that prolonged standing could lead to negative health effects, such as “discomfort in the low back, lower and upper limbs (to varying degrees) and lower limb swelling.”

Some of the news stories on the study carried rather alarming headlines.

Study: Standing desks could be harmful to your productivity . . . and your health

Standing desks may be harmful to your health, according to new study

Standing desks are bad for you, study suggests

The thing is, if you take a close look at the study, you’ll see that it was really small, only 20 people. And that’s not all, says Dr. Stephen Barr, a spine specialist at MaineOrtho in Portland. He noted that the researchers only observed participants while they stood for two hours, and did not compare their findings to people who sat for the same period of time or stood and sat. “So, I agree,” he said, “The study is rather poor. My takeaway from it is, like anything, it may not be right for everybody, but some people may love standing up.”

Standing works the back muscles and burns more calories than sitting. Someone who doesn’t start out in great shape may find standing at their desk a challenge. “If you’re on the edge of things,” said Dr. Barr, “if you’re physically deconditioned, and you’re having three cups of coffee, not drinking any water, smoking, it’s going to be a recipe for disaster, it’s just not going to work.”

On the other hand, he said if you have good core strength, don’t smoke, and are well hydrated, you might be able to stand at your desk all day long and be fine.

Diane's daughter at standing desk

My daughter Stephanie uses an adjustable desk at work that gives her the option of sitting or standing. She just raises or lowers the desk. She prefers to stand but says it sure does feel good to sit sometimes.

I decided to trade in my standup desk for a sit down L-shaped desk, which I love. There’s plenty of room for me and my cat Charlotte to spread out. So that I don’t spend hours hunched over the computer, I use an app called Focus Keeper. It has lots of settings options, but basically, you set the timer for 1) the length of time you want to work, 2) take a short break, and 3) take a longer break. I set mine for 25 minutes, 5 minutes, and 25 minutes. It’s amazing how much better I feel and how much more productive I am when I follow this routine.

Dr. Stephen Barr/standing desksDr. Barr agreed that a combination of sitting and standing, moving around and taking breaks is probably best — for the ergonomics of the body, but also for the brain. I never thought about the effect sitting or standing for hours on end might have on my brain.

“If you’re just pedal to the metal three hours straight, trying to bore down on whatever you’re writing, things are going to back up in your hard drive,” he told me. “You’re not going to be as efficient. You’ve got to clear that stuff out, file it away and then get back at it.”

Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence that standing desks are good or bad for you. More research needs to be done. As for the Australian study and any other study that gets reported in the news, be careful not to take the information at face value. Here are 10 tips for conducting your own review of a news story about current research. They come from a great website called HealthNewsReview: News Story Review Criteria.

And now it’s time for me to take a break and move around. Whether you sit or stand, I hope you’ll follow my lead! How about we do a few stretches?

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.