Sit down for this: Standing desks might actually be bad for you

We already know that sitting down at work takes a toll on our bodies. But now, new research is finding that standing desks are not great for our bodies either.

Illustration: Ashley Siebels

We already know that sitting down at work takes a toll on our bodies. Hunching over a screen all day contorts our back muscles into knots. The more we do it, the closer we are to death. An analysis of 47 studies on sedentary behavior found that prolonged sitting not only eclipses the benefits of exercise, it also increases our risk of dying from heart disease.

In the face of this dire warning, workers are told to get up from their seats and stand more. An industry of standing desks was even created to alleviate the pressures of sitting down all day. But now, new research is finding that standing around at work is not great for our bodies either.

New study: Standing desks increase body pain

A study published in the journal Ergonomics found that standing at a desk for just two hours will create “discomfort and deteriorating mental reactiveness.”

On one hand, this body stress also created the right working environment for employees to make bigger leaps in their decisions. “Creative problem solving improved,” researchers found. But overall, the prolonged standing increased back pain and slowed down our cognitive functions. “Over time, discomfort increased in all body areas,” health researchers at Curtin University wrote in the study. “Sustained attention reaction time deteriorated.”

The study is a bold rebuke of the scientific benefits of standing desks and hints that their popularity may be driven more by marketing than by science.

Not enough scientific evidence on standing desk benefits

But before you chuck out your standing desk, we must take the study in perspective to weigh its conclusions accordingly. While the study sample was only 20 adults, its conclusions do align with other research, that is challenging the benefits of standing desks as the best health intervention for sitting down at work. A review of 20 studies on sitting interventions could not conclusively prove that standing had enough health benefits to undo sitting’s damage.

Looking over the limited evidence on standing studies, Nipun Shrestha from the Health Research and Social Development Forum acknowledged, “We need further research to assess the effectiveness of different types of interventions for reducing sitting time in workplaces in both the short and long term. The evidence base would be improved with larger studies, longer follow-up and research from low-income countries.”

You can’t win if you sit, you can’t win if you stand. Until more comprehensive studies are done, the jury is still out on how long is too long when standing on your feet. The solution for office workers is to do both actions mindfully and in moderation. We already know we need to remember to get up and take breaks from your work. But now we also know that we need to remember to sit down and rest too.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.