Standing Desks Don't Decrease Sitting Time at Work, Says New Report

An analysis suggests standing desks may not significantly reduce sedentary behavior at work. REUTERS/Catherine Benson

Chances are, if you work in an office you have at least one colleague who doesn't sit in a chair, but has instead joined the millions of desk workers who loom over other cubicles in a standing position for some of the day. These co-workers may spend their lunch breaks carrying on about how their $400 standup desk increases energy, productivity, posture and alleviates back pain. Some are annoying enough to quote marketing taglines such as "sitting is the new smoking" or "sitting equals death."

Research shows sedentary behavior definitely contributes to risk for chronic and fatal illnesses including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and cancer. However, despite everyone jumping (or standing) on the standing desk bandwagon, a study suggests this new approach to office life may be backed mostly by marketing gimmicks, not evidence-based science. It appears likely that these desks don't actually reduce the amount of sitting people are doing at offices in a way that could produce a meaningful impact on long-term health.

The report, published March 18 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, finds most studies on the benefits of standing desks are poorly designed and many are based on sample sizes way too small for interpreting meaningful results.

The researchers included 20 studies in their analysis, which accounted for 2,180 participants, all from high income nations. Nine of the studies evaluated physical workplace changes, two looked at policy changes and seven studies focused on information and counseling regarding standing desks. The remaining two studies evaluated the impact of both physical workplace changes along with information and counseling. Some of the studies that were analyzed also looked at the impact of treadmill desks and other creative interventions.

The researchers found standing desks alone decreased workplace sitting about 30 to 120 minutes each day, regardless of whether or not employees were counseled about the benefits of getting out of their chairs. The presence of standing desks did appear to at least reduce the amount of time people spent sitting for hours on end (defined as 30 minutes of more). However, it's still unclear if that itself could have any lasting health benefit, especially if it's not done consistently.

Offices have attempted to implement other tools to minimize sedentary behavior-related sluggishness that is known to lower work productivity. Enforced walking breaks didn't appear to decrease sitting. Mindfulness training was also a colossal waste of time, at least in terms in encouraging employees to get off their butts.

However, studies on the impact of computer-prompting software showed mixed results. In one study, computer prompts reduced sitting time by 55 minutes compared with no intervention. Another study found prompts to stand reduced sitting 14 minutes more than programs that encouraged workers to get up from their desks and actively walk around.

The authors of this systematic analysis conclude more research is needed to determine just how effective standing desks are, both for reducing time spent sitting at work and for what the real long-term health impacts are of this type of office set up. They also conclude evidence on the effectiveness of other interventions, such as treadmill desks, computer software and counseling, is still inconclusive. Ultimately, the health of office workers can only change if these interventions are actually used by employees and relatively easy for companies to implement.