A systematic review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that there were many studies that identified associations with sitting at work and poor health outcomes. But when they focused on prospective studies — following groups of people forward over time — which might better confirm a causal link, they found that there wasn’t really much evidence to support it.
Moreover, these studies tend to focus only on the positive effects of standing at work and the negative effects of sitting. A full accounting would also examine the opposite. A longitudinal study of more than 38,000 people published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that standing or walking for more than six hours a day at work was associated with a doubled or tripled risk of needing surgery for varicose veins. Varicose veins are also associated with increased risks of arterial disease and heart failure.
It’s possible, though, that standing at work — as with sitting too much at home — could be a marker for other unhealthy demographic factors or habits, including lower socioeconomic status. There’s a difference between those who must stand or walk for most of the workday and those who can sit at any time.
But particularly for those who don’t have the option to lower their desk, there is at least some evidence in that study and in others that standing for much of a workday is not healthful.
A number of countries have called for more standing and less sitting at work. Some go as far as to declare “sitting is the new smoking.” In 2013, an American Medical Association board member said, “Prolonged sitting, particularly in work settings, can cause health problems, and encouraging workplaces to offer employees alternatives to sitting all day will help to create a healthier work force,” and suggested that standing work stations should be one of the options.
Too much sitting over the course of a day is not healthy — let’s be clear. And as I’ve written before, exercise is the closest thing to a wonder drug. Few things provide as much health benefits.
But standing is not exercise. Many health groups recommend that people at work take frequent walking breaks. Replacing sitting with standing does not fulfill that recommendation and may even mislead people into thinking they’re doing enough activity.
Sit-stand desks are not exactly inexpensive, but like many things in life, they’re fine if you like them. And if it helps alleviate some back and neck pain, so much the better. It’s just that most people probably don’t need them.