You may have heard that “sitting is the new smoking,” meaning that the health risks of prolonged sitting are equivalent to those of tobacco use. It’s true that we spend more time than ever sitting down — mostly at our computers and in front of TVs — and it’s also true that a sedentary lifestyle is an unhealthy one. There is some evidence that breaking up long periods of sitting can reduce musculoskeletal problems, but you can accomplish that without switching to a standing desk. And a standing desk, or standing at a desk, won’t help at all if your goals are weight loss, physical fitness, or heart health.
The problem is inactivity, which has been growing for decades, with more and more people not getting enough movement for good health. In 1999 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report that estimated that more than 60 percent of American adults were insufficiently active, with 25 percent not active at all. In 2002 the World Health Organization reported that between 60% and 85% of people in the world led sedentary lifestyles. Inactivity is associated with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease as well as many other disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Many of us work at jobs that don’t require physical exertion, and too many don’t set aside the time outside of work to engage in physical activity. In addition to the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle, the sheer number of hours we now spend sitting are also creating risks for low back pain, hip pain, and even “gluteal amnesia” (also known as “dead butt syndrome”). And it may be getting worse: a 2019 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that in just the ten years from 2007 and 2016, the total sitting time for Americans had increased by nearly an hour a day.
In 2018, a team of Australian researchers reviewed 34 different studies that tracked workplace interventions for 3,397 people aimed at reducing sitting time. These interventions included providing information to employees, computer prompts to stand up, mindfulness training, and the use of standing and sit-stand desks. Providing workers sit-stand desks initially reduced sitting time by 100 minutes a day; a few months later that benefit was still 57 minutes a day. Taking frequent short breaks from sitting (standing up for a minute or two every half hour) reduced total sitting time by 40 minutes a day. Other interventions, including computer prompts and counseling, produced less significant reductions in sitting time. So, if having a standing or sit-stand desk available makes you get out of your seat more often, then yes, it can be beneficial – but merely standing up frequently throughout the day will also help.
Just don’t expect that standing desk to help with weight loss; while it’s true that people who are obese tend to sit more, they would get far more benefit from adopting a more active lifestyle than by standing up. One study showed that you would have to stand up rather than sit for a full six hours a day to expend an additional 54 calories, which is about what you’d burn off during a brisk 15-minute walk. Regular walking not only burns calories — it also improves cardiovascular function, boosts mood, and reduces the risk of many other health conditions.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
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