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Movement matters more than sitting or standing at work

Christoph Spiegl

Recent research has suggested sitting all day is bad for a person’s health. According to U.S. News and World Report’s Anna Medaris Miller, standing desks have come in vogue due to companies using the research in marketing campaigns. But, she says solely standing is not the answer.

This week on Take Care, Medaris talks about the benefits and harms of standing at work she learned while reporting her story “5 Ways Your Standing Desk Is Doing More Harm Than Good.”

Medaris admits she has a sit-stand desk of her own. However, while a person burns 20 percent more calories standing than sitting, the connection made between sitting and being sedentary misses a certain detail. Standing in place can be just as sedentary as sitting.

Studies she came across during her research support the use of a sit-stand desk when a person switches between positions. One showed using a sit-stand desk reduced participant’s sedentary time throughout the week by three hours as well as a number of other benefits.

“They report feeling better,” Medaris said. “They’re happier, they have less fatigue, they’re even less hungry and their productivity stayed the same.”

Increased productivity seems to depend on the task, according to Medaris. When working on tasks that need fine motor skills and a lot of focus, such as a doctor or surgeon, standing up is not the best option because the person is using more of his or her mental reserves. If he or she is on a phone call or reading over some paperwork, standing could work well.

Standing all day, however, can be harmful to a person’s health. While standing burns more calories, Medaris warns it also will make a person feel exhausted by the end of the day and affect productivity as the day goes on or make he or she skip the trip to the gym after work.

Other risks to one’s health include lower back pain, varicose veins or a blood clot in a deep vein. Also, standing for long periods of time will be hard on someone with heart problems. These reasons are why Medaris recommends rotating between sitting and standing.

The price of sit-stand desks varies. Some can run as high in price as $2,000, while options such as a adjustable laptop desk from Ikea can be roughly $20. She also suggests some options that are free. If a person is unsure if a sit-stand desk is right for them, he or she can try out using a laptop on a countertop at home or a local coffee shop. That way, a person can see how standing for a bit impacts his or her productivity and how his or her body feels before making an investment.

The key to better health is moving as much as possible, whether a person purchases a sit-stand desk or not.

“There’s some really interesting research out of Mayo Clinic that shows people who stave off weight gain more easily tend to burn more calories throughout the day doing less conscious activity,” Medaris said.

She found during her reporting that it is not necessarily a trip to the gym that leads to weight loss, but instead it is walking to the farther bathroom at work or taking the stairs. Actually, a person can take just one flight of stairs and then the elevator if he or she would rather do that. Every little bit counts.

Here is a breakdown of how Medaris says she would go through an average eight-hour work day:

  • A few hours on her feet because it makes the morning a little bit more energizing
  • Once she starts to feel a little tired, she sits down for a few hours
  • She will take an afternoon walk as a break for her body and mind
  • Throughout the day, she is making sure to listen to her body, as well as adjusting the height of her desk so she does not slouch or crane her neck