By Jessica Scarpati –
Sitting is the new smoking — that’s been the ominous takeaway in recent years from a growing body of research showing our sedentary lifestyle is to blame for increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
This is especially bad news for a country that holds time on its rear so dear. One in four U.S. adults sits for more than eight hours a day, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018.
The plight of posteriors is even worse today. The pandemic has added another four hours sitting while at home each day for adults, according to a survey by commissioned by Preparation H. This probably comes as no surprise if you’re among the millions of Americans continuing to work from home or simply not venturing out as much due to health concerns.
Experts say our bodies are paying the price.
“The big thing is just changing positions is important for overall spine and back health,” orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Ashley Rogerson told CNN. “When you’re sitting in a chair for too long with poor posture in sedentary jobs, it makes you kind of prone to sort of chronic low-back and neck pain. I see probably a handful of patients a week that are now working from home or just less active than they would be normally that have developed sort of acute and chronic neck pain and back pain.”
All edge-of-the-seat drama begs the question: are highly-touted standing desks the remedy to everyone’s affair with the chair? Depends. It is one thing when an employer is shelling out the cash to install standing desks at the office. But is it worth paying out of pocket to get one for the home? With lower-end models starting around $400 to $500 — and higher-end, motorized types reaching into the $2,000-plus range — it’s not exactly an impulse buy for most consumers. (So-called “standing desk converters,” adjustable platforms for a monitor or laptop that sit on top of a desk, run considerably cheaper at about $100 to $200.)
Science offers some guidance. To start, while a number of studies have found compelling reasons to spend less time sitting, health experts don’t recommend replacing it entirely with standing. That’s because standing for long periods can compress your spine and increase your risk for developing varicose veins and other vascular problems.
“For spine health, you definitely don’t want to sit all day. Standing is better than sitting, but just standing up in the same position all day is not great for your back either,” sports medicine physician Dr. Michael Fredericson told Men’s Health. “You shouldn’t be doing anything inactive for six to eight hours a day — whether that’s sitting at a computer or standing at a computer. Our bodies are meant to move.”
Evidence about the health benefits of standing desks is wobbly at best. A small 2016 study examined how many calories people burned while sitting, standing or walking on a treadmill. Researchers found that standing only burned about eight calories more per hour than sitting, explained Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Robert Shmerling, who recapped the findings on the Harvard Health Blog.
“In other words, use of a standing desk for three hours burns an extra 24 calories, about the same number of calories in a carrot. But walking for just a half-hour during your lunch break could burn an extra 100 calories each day,” Shmerling wrote. “Prior reports of the calories burned by standing versus sitting suggested a much higher calorie burn rate for standing, but this new study actually measured energy expenditure and likely represents a more accurate assessment.”
Just as standing desks don’t appear to be the antidote to obesity, nor do they seem to have any significant role in preventing heart disease or stroke.
“Well-meaning safety professionals and some office furniture manufacturers are pushing sit-stand workstations as a way of improving cardiovascular health, but there is no scientific evidence to support this recommendation,” said Dr. David Rempel, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a New York Times interview.
So, maybe a standing desk isn’t going to prevent you from prematurely shuffling off this mortal coil, but they’re not entirely without merit.
A 2018 study found that workers who used sit-stand desks, whose height can be adjusted to a sitting or standing position, demonstrated improved job performance, less fatigue and lower anxiety.
In a meta-review of 53 studies about the effects of sit-stand desks on physical and mental health, a team of researchers found that providing relief from back and neck pain was one of the desks’ most credible claims.
“We saw consistently across the studies an improvement in discomfort and pain as people use the desks,” lead researcher and bioengineering professor April Chambers told CNN. “And this was found not only in people who, for example, experienced low-back pain, but also in adults with obesity and in healthy populations as well.”
If you’re going to take the plunge on a standing desk, experts advise starting slow to acclimate your body and remaining mindful of posture and ergonomics.
“One of my clients switched to standing desk, and it increased her back pain,” personal trainer Carol Michaels told NBC News. “I then discovered that she was wearing four-inch heels while standing at her desk. So, when using a standing desk, you must have proper footwear.”