Standing vs. Sitting: Are Standing Desks Healthier?

Medical Studies
June 21, 2019

How seriously should we take the stand-up desk trend? Read on to find out.

Standing desks—in all their permutations—seem to be in vogue. Although they’ve long been associated with Silicon Valley mainstays like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, they’re becoming increasingly popular outside of the Bay area. Are there any genuine standing desk health benefits, or is it just another gimmicky innovation created to solve a problem that wasn’t there in the first place? Get the lowdown.

What’s wrong with sitting?

It’s no great secret that prolonged sitting can cause a myriad of health problems. But it’s probably also fair to say that the most people don’t understand quite how serious these health risks really are. As hypochondriac as it sounds, sitting too much could literally kill you.
Obesity, increased blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, and high blood-sugar levels are all associated with sitting too much, as is cancer and cardiovascular disease. Hey, maybe we’ll all look back on our sedentary lifestyles the way we look back on smokers from the 50s. It’ll probably seem crazy that we didn’t take the health risks more seriously.
But it’s important to remember that the health impact isn’t only physical. A recent study has found that sitting may also be bad for your brain. According to Dr. Prabha Siddarth from the University of California, sedentary behavior has strong ties to reduced thickness in the medial temporal lobe (MTL). The MTL is the home of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is super important when it comes to memory, indicating that the more time you spend sitting down, the greater the potential damage to your capacity for memory and learning.
Sometimes, it seems like our sedentary lives end up boiling down to a succession of chairs. From the office to the couch to bed, even if we want to stop sitting so much, it can feel like a pretty inescapable part of modern life. That’s where standing desks come in.

Are standing desks the solution?

Although the jury’s still out, there do seem to be plenty of standing desk health benefits for people who live a sedentary lifestyle. For a start, standing desks could have a seriously beneficial impact on your weight.
Research from the Mayo Clinic has shown that standing up instead of sitting for around 6 hours a day can help people lose weight, with standing burning 0.15 calories more per minute than sitting. Over 6 hours, that adds up to around 54 calories (depending on weight) and could lead to serious weight loss over a longer period.
Of course, using a standing desk for 6 hours might be a little ambitious. A study from Cochrane found that sit-stand desks reduce sitting in the office by 84–116 minutes a day. Impressive? Sure, but that’s less than a third of the time needed to see the sort of results that were demonstrated in the Mayo Clinic’s study, and indicates that standing desk health benefits may realistically end up being slightly less impressive than we might expect.
Plus, it’s also possible that standing for long periods can cause health problems by itself. A 2018 study found that people who work in jobs that are predominantly standing were at double the risk of heart disease as people who are in jobs that mostly involve sitting.
The efficacy of standing desks for cognition is also disputed. While one study found that the use of standing desks can lead to a substantial improvement in memory and executive function, other studies have been a little more cautious. One recent study, published in the journal Ergonomics, has found that standing desks may actually decrease mental function. Yikes. This is not at all clear-cut is it?

Bottom line

Reducing the number of hours you spend sitting will have a significant impact on your health, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should simply swap a sit-down with a standing desk. Think of it like dieting. It’s almost never effective to completely replace one thing with another. Introducing elements of walking, standing, and sitting into your workplace routine can be effective, but it’s also most important to remain fit and healthy outside the office.