Sit-Stand Desks Good for the Mind. What About the Body?
"Sit-stand" desks can get office workers on their feet more often -- and improve their well-being along the way, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that when they swapped out traditional office desks for sit-stand versions, workers stayed on their feet for an extra 80 minutes on the average workday.
And over one year, that translated into lower levels of anxiety and job fatigue, less back pain and more engagement in work.
The findings, published online Oct. 10 in the journal BMJ, may offer desk workers more incentive to get on their feet whenever possible.
"Simply replacing some time spent sitting each day with standing may be beneficial in lots of different ways for health and well-being," said lead researcher Charlotte Edwardson, an associate professor at the University of Leicester, in England.
That doesn't mean better-designed desks are the sole key to a happy, healthy workplace, experts said.
Office workers are notoriously sedentary -- spending up to 85 percent of their workday in a chair, according to Edwardson's team.
And research suggests that all that sitting contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even a shorter lifespan.
In this trial, employees stood for longer periods after they were given sit-stand desks. But they didn't walk around more often, as the researchers hoped they would.
The desks, Edwardson explained, were part of a bigger educational effort that encouraged office workers to break up their day with standing and walking.
"But it appears that participants chose to stand rather than move around," she said.
Still, sit-stand or standing desks can be one good step, said Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the University of Arizona's Institute on Place, Wellbeing and Performance, in Tucson.
Sternberg -- who said she uses a standing desk -- conducts research on workplace design and employee health.
"It used to be that the focus was on removing toxins from the workplace, which is absolutely necessary," Sternberg said.
But more recently, she explained, researchers have been studying the range of ways the "built environment" affects workers' well-being. That includes looking for ways to free desk workers from so much down time.
"There's a saying that 'sitting is the new smoking,'" Sternberg noted.
In a study published earlier this year, her team found that open-office designs might be healthier than cubicles or private offices: Employees in open workspaces were more physically active and less stressed than those who were walled off from each other.
However, Sternberg emphasized that that doesn't mean workers will thrive if employers "just knock down some walls" and dump desks and office equipment into one room.
"Office spaces need to be thoughtfully designed," Sternberg said -- and there is no "one-size-fits-all" way of doing that, she added.
Factors ranging from the type of business to employees' individual personalities matter, too, according to Sternberg.
The new findings are based on 146 people with desk jobs within the U.K. health system. About half were randomly assigned to receive adjustable-height desks that allowed them to work sitting or standing.
A year later, the study found, those workers were standing for longer periods, versus their counterparts with traditional desks -- an average of 83 minutes more each day.
There were also signs that less sitting sparked a range of benefits. Workers with sit-stand desks gave higher ratings to their job performance and work engagement, and reported less anxiety and job fatigue.
They reported fewer aches and pains, too. For example, Edwardson said, workers with sit-stand desks were 84 percent less likely to complain of debilitating lower back pain.
For now, she suggested desk workers look for ways to get on their feet more often.
"We're not saying, 'Don't sit down,'" Edwardson noted. It's about finding a better "balance," she said, between sitting and moving throughout the workday.
In an accompanying journal editorial, Dr. Cindy Gray, of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, questioned the potential for health gains by simply replacing sitting with standing at work. The reason: the sit-stand desks did not lead to more potentially beneficial physical activity.
The study was funded by government and university grants.
The American Cancer Society has tips on staying active at work.
SOURCES: Charlotte Edwardson, Ph.D., M.Sc., associate professor, physical activity, sedentary behavior and health, University of Leicester, Leicester, England; Esther Sternberg, M.D., director, University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing and Performance, Tucson; Oct. 10, 2018, BMJ, online