Every so often, it turns out that something we’ve all been using our whole lives is actually trying to murder us. A few years ago, it was our shoes.
Someone released a study, someone else published a book and the press picked up on it and decided that wearing modern shoes is the most dangerous thing you could possibly do in your life.
Next thing you know, we all look ridiculous.
A few months later, we decide that hey, maybe shoes aren’t actually the enemy. And more importantly, we figure out that we’d rather be comfortable than look and feel ridiculous.
Trend over. Shoes no longer deadly weapons. Barefoot shoe sales plummet.
Is this the same cycle we’re in now with standing desks and the “dangers” of sitting? I don’t know. But to a guy who admittedly got caught up in the barefoot fad, seeing headlines like this sure makes it feel familiar.
Today, I’m taking a real, honest look behind the hype on standing desks, and whether they’re actually better for you, both for your health and your productivity.
First, don’t believe the hype: sitting isn’t THAT dangerous
The latest health craze is the belief that sitting is the single most dangerous thing you can do in your life. I read an article and learned that sitting for even six minutes will double your risk of death, triple your risk of getting hit by lightning and virtually guarantee that you’ll get lyme disease.
Unfortunately, here’s the way most of the studies cited for these arguments are done (including this one from the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which I’ve seen nearly a dozen times around the web in my research for this post):
- Researchers look at how much time a group of participants (or, in the case of the study linked above, a group of records in a data set) spent doing various activities each day. Examples: watching TV, exercising, smoking, etc…
- Researchers then cross-reference their findings to mortality rates and other health outcomes in the group to see which activities correlate (keyword) with which outcomes.
- Researchers publish nuanced findings and call for further research.
- Reporters and bloggers who care more about clicks and page-views than science turn the research into misleading headlines.
- Sitting = death.
Here’s the problem: I — and any reasonable person — would expect that those who sit and watch TV for many hours each day have many other unhealthy habits that could lead to issues and shortened life expectancies.
Digging into the studies that take those factors into account leads to a surprisingly different conclusion.
A study released a few months ago from the Mayo Clinic, much like many of the other studies in this realm, looked at how lifestyle factors impacted disease risk and longevity. Again, they found that those who spend more time being sedentary had a higher risk of disease.
But there’s a twist: when they looked at study participants who spent a lot of time being sedentary but also exercised for an hour each day, the negative effects of sitting were nearly wiped out.
Yet another study this year in PLOS ONE found that even doing light exercise daily (like walking) erased the negative effects of sitting.
Bottom line: Sitting might have a negative impact on your health, but that impact is exaggerated in the press and can be minimized (or eliminated) with light exercise.
Standing desks come with health risks, too
Those standing desks that were supposed to save us from the dangers of sitting? They come with their own risks.
In 2000, a study published by researchers at U.C. Berkeley found that standing for most of the day increases the risk of carotid atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
And one 2005 study, conducted over 12 years in Denmark, suggests that those who stand for more than 75% of their work day are far more likely to be hospitalized because of varicose veins.
Others have reported pain and numbness in their toes from using a standing desk.
Just like with the sitting studies, none of this means that using a standing desk will result in sickness or death, but it’s important to consider that the science on standing desks isn’t all rosy.
Some people ARE more productive when standing.
Some people report that standing while working makes them more productive.
That may be true.
Unfortunately, most of the evidence out there is purely anecdotal. The most linked-to test I could find — a seven-person “study” where a team tracked their productivity using a desktop time-tracking app — is hardly conclusive. The team claims that their productivity rose 10%, but the two biggest issues here are:
- Seven people isn’t a valid study by any means (I’m not criticising the team here; I love to see people experiment on themselves and I’m glad they tested this, I’m just suggesting caution before taking the results as gospel that applies to all of us).
- and the team could’ve been more productive because they knew they were participating in an experiment. The Hawthorne Effect (in which people change their behavior when they know they’re being observed) is very real.
Another issue to consider is that many standing desks cost $1,000 or more. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some cases, there were post-purchase rationalization at play — a type of cognitive bias that make us likely to overestimate the benefits (and overlook the costs) of an expensive purchase in order to convince ourselves that we made the right decision.
With that said, I don’t doubt that some people are more productive when standing, if for no other reason than they convince themselves of that. No matter the underlying cause, higher productivity is a very good thing.
But, standing could also HURT productivity
Anecdotally, in my own experiments with a standing desk, my productivity suffered.
I found myself walking away from my desk more. It was easier to get distracted, because the barrier to, say, walking into the kitchen for a snack, was lower. Not much lower, but enough so that it actually changed my behavior.
I was also getting tired and taking breaks more often.
Now, breaks are a very good thing. They can help you be more focused and productive, and are a great excuse to get that exercise to avoid the negative impact of being sedentary.
But I want to take breaks on my own terms. I don’t want my legs to dictate when my brain should stop working. I usually take breaks at natural points when my productivity or focus start to suffer. But with the standing desk, I’d often I’d be “in the zone” writing, and leg fatigue would tell me that it was time for a break.
Getting pulled away from work when you’re at peak productivity is devastating, and was far too high a cost for me than any of the benefits.
Still want a standing desk?
If you’re set on trying a standing desk, here’s what I recommend.
Start with a cheaper alternative (this is what I used) that converts your existing desk into a standing one. You’ll know quickly if it’s right for you.
If you know that you want to take the plunge and get a more serious standing desk, get one that converts to a sitting desk. It’ll help you prevent fatigue and distractions when you need to focus most. You could try a VARIDESK, a reasonably priced ($300+) option that, like the StandSteady, goes on top of your existing desk, or an UpDesk (like the VERIDESK, but spiffy and completely automatic ) as a higher-end option.
What do you think?
If you’ve already used — or still use — a standing desk, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Did it change your life for the better, or are you back to the chair?
If you were thinking about trying a standing desk, are you still considering it?
Leave a comment and let me know.