Standing Desks: Not Just Overrated but Harmful

Standing Desks: Not Just Overrated but Harmful

Standing desks have been touted as the solution to sedentary lifestyles and the health risks associated with spending long hours sitting down. However, recent studies have shown that standing desks may not be as beneficial as sometimes thought. In fact, standing desks may even have negative effects on our health. In this article, I will discuss the drawbacks of standing desks and why they should not be seen as the solution to our sedentary lifestyles.

Disclaimer: As the founder of a company that produces treadmill desks, I have a vested interest in promoting active workstations beyond standing desks. However, it's important to note that I am also a senior medical doctor with years of experience in treating and preventing various of the disorders mentioned below. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely based on my professional medical experience and expertise and are not influenced by any personal or professional gain. The goal of this article is to provide valuable insights on the health aspects of active workstations.


The hype in numbers

The introduction of height-adjustable desks in offices around the world is a clear sign that there is a strong desire for health-conscious workspaces. According to a 2017 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, standing desks are the fastest-growing benefits trend; 13% of employers offered or subsidized them in 2013, compared to 44% in 2017. In some countries, up to 25% of offices have adopted standing desks. The global standing desk market is estimated to reach $2.8 billion by 2025 (Credence Research, 2017), making it a trend that appears to be here to stay.  


Standing for Long Periods Can Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease

Standing for long periods of time may actually do more harm than good. A Canadian study compared standing and sitting at work among 7,000 workers; researchers reviewed the workers' health records and looked for associations between occupational standing, sitting, and cases of heart disease over the previous 12 years. At the beginning of the study period, all of the people were free of heart disease. The study found that those who had to stand at work had twice the risk of heart disease compared to those who spent most of their time sitting. Possible confounding factors such as other health, socio-demographic, educational, and work variables were excluded.

Although not fully understood, the underlying causes are likely to be the result of a combination of too much venous blood pooling in the legs, with an associated increase in venous pressure, and an increase in oxidative stress in the blood vessels. Over time, this constant stress on the vessel walls may explain the paradoxical increased risk of heart disease in those who stand more (Smith et al., 2017). And the heart doesn't seem to be the only organ that suffers from prolonged standing. Early studies have suggested that serious pregnancy-related risks, such as preterm birth and spontaneous abortion, may also be a result (McCulloch et al, 2002, Waters et al, 2015)".


Standing Desks Don't Burn Enough Calories

Isn't standing supposed to burn more calories than sitting? Yes, but you can count on two hands how many more calories you burn standing. When not sitting, a person standing is still largely inactive. Many people have changed their personal work environment to improve their health, but they have been given a false sense of security that is not supported by science.

A Harvard study published in 2016 in the journal Circulation compared the results of 44 studies involving more than 1,000 participants. They found that the average difference in energy expenditure between sitting and standing was only 9 calories per hour. This means that if a user of a standing desk were to stand for six hours a day, it would be equivalent to the amount of calories in an apple. (Saeidifard et al., 2016). This means that trying to lose weight by using a standing desk is little more than wishful thinking. In comparison, walking for 1 hour burns about 400 calories because walking requires half of the body's 650 muscles to be active.

This finding takes on greater significance when you consider that a motivation for many users to start using a standing desk is the desire to lose weight.

The predominant association is that standing workstations are measures to promote health in the work environment. The existence of subsidized programs by health insurance companies also points to their overall positive health benefits. However, when we dig deeper, we find that the latest research actually points in the opposite direction.


Standing is bad for posture

The main problem with standing desks has to do with the very posture they force the user to adopt. Standing for long periods of time is uncomfortable. From our own experience, we know that standing while waiting in line is associated with feelings of heaviness in the legs, back pain, general fatigue, and even affects our mood.

Maintaining proper posture while standing to avoid the pain described above is a challenge for many. The reason is simple. The human anatomy and physiology is not optimized to support such a posture for extended periods of time.

After years of sitting, the body's soft tissues and muscles have likely suffered significant damage, resulting in relative weakness in the core and gluteal muscles, with a consequent lack of stabilization and a forward tipping pelvis. Tight hip flexor muscles, often severely shortened from sitting, also contribute to poor posture when standing. As with sitting, many people who stand tend to slouch and lean to one side, still relying loosely on soft tissue structures.

The body is easily thrown off balance when standing, resulting in a bias to one side or a constant forward and backward shift. The posture typically seen in office workers using standing desks is one in which the arch of the lower back is exaggerated, resulting in compression of the intervertebral disc spaces and often leading to muscle pain. Lower back pain is therefore one of the most common complaints I have heard from patients using standing desks, which is somewhat ironic as many have sought to use standing desks to alleviate these very ailments.


Standing Desks Can Cause Foot and Back Pain

Standing for hours on end can also cause foot and back pain. Standing puts extra strain on your feet, causing them to ache and swell. Additionally, standing can cause lower back pain as the body is forced to maintain an upright position for a long period. This pain can be detrimental to your physical and mental health, resulting in decreased productivity and an overall negative impact on your quality of life.


Standing Desks Can Increase Your Risk of Varicose Veins

Standing for long periods increases the risk of developing varicose veins. Varicose veins occur when blood pools in the veins, causing them to become swollen and twisted. This condition can be painful and unsightly and can affect your overall health and well-being.


Standing Desks Can Lead to Fatigue and Decreased Productivity

Standing for long periods can cause fatigue and decreased productivity. Standing requires more energy than sitting, which can lead to mental and physical exhaustion. This can result in decreased productivity and overall job dissatisfaction, leading to negative consequences for both the employee and the employer.


Most standing desks are not used

The discomfort associated with height-adjustable desks often results in them not being used as intended. A large study conducted in Germany investigated this issue. Nearly 700 participants were surveyed about their use of a sit-stand desk. Of the study population, 16% had access to such a desk, similar to the range in other countries. Surprisingly, only half of these individuals used the standing functionality of the desk, the other half had stopped standing and instead lowered it back to a height that allowed for use with a conventional chair (Wallmann-Sperlich et al., 2017).

Access to a standing desk also does not appear to significantly reduce overall sitting time, likely due to compensation through increased leisure time inactivity. A systematic review comparing the results of 21 different studies published in the Cochrane Registry in 2016 concluded that the availability of standing desks only results in a reduction in total sitting time of about 30 minutes to two hours (Shrestha et al., 2016).



So what’s the bottom line? Are standing desks worth the investment? As with most things in life, the answer is complex and depends on a variety of factors. Ultimately, the key is to find a balance that works for you and your unique work style. As a longtime user and, since 2017, a manufacturer of treadmill desks, my recommendation for the ultimate in office ergonomics is obvious, but I didn't write this article to promote our own products. Adding a suitable treadmill to a standing desk can eliminate all of the listed disadvantages of standing desks.



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