What we know — and what we don’t — about standing desks

031030-F-2828D-166 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld works at the stand-up desk in his office as he goes over his opening remarks prior to a Pentagon press briefing on Oct. 30, 2003. Rumsfeld will give reporters an update on the progress of Operation Iraqi Freedom and take questions during the televised briefing. DoD photo Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

If you pay any attention to news stories about health and wellness, you’ve likely read or heard that sitting for long periods of time can harm your health.

There is evidence to suggest that sitting for hours at a time leads to a host of health problems including heart disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, poor posture, weak muscles and even some types of cancer.

Enter the standing desk, an invention designed to help people with desk-jobs avoid long periods of time in a chair. It turns out people have been using standing desks for centuries. Notable historic figures including Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Hammerstein II and Ernest Hemingway used standing desks throughout their careers. But with the new information about the health effects of sitting, large companies have begun introducing them into the workplace in greater numbers. But do they make a difference?

Two systematic reviews published this year look at the evidence available on standing desks. The first, published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at the  impact of standing desks in schools. It sought to find out whether introducing standing desks in the classroom affects students’ physical activity, health, and academic and behavioral outcomes.

Researchers found eight separate studies that looked at how standing desks effected children in the classroom. They did note that four of the studies were not randomized-controlled designs, and most were pilot or feasibility studies. But the preliminary data did find some benefits to standing desks in schools. Students spent, on average, about an hour more on their feet each day. And some studies reported increased energy expenditure and improved classroom behavior.

The second review, published by the Cochrane Collaboration, investigated the affects of standing desks in the workplace. They also compared standing desks to other interventions that encourage physical activity in the workplace including treadmill desks, counseling to encourage more physical activity, and planned walking breaks. Researchers identified 20 studies with more than 2,100 participants in total, but found the quality of evidence was low because most studies had few participants and were poorly designed.

Despite the limitations of the data, the review did find that standing desks and treadmill desks reduce the amount of time employees spend sitting anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours a day. Researchers didn’t find evidence that any of the interventions worked. They conclude that we need robust randomized-controlled trials to identify the health effects associated with spending less time sitting.

The take-home message?  So far, there is no concrete evidence that standing desks help to improve people’s health. But there’s also no evidence that shows they do any harm. For me, thinking about how my body feels in just the time I spent sitting down to write this post make me want to stand up and stretch!

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