What a Standing Desk Will—and Won't—Do for Your Health

Changing positions between standing and sitting can have a big impact on your workday.

Two colleagues working at a standing desk in a modern office space with greenery

Tom Werner / Getty Images

If you've got a desk job, chances are you spend the majority of your time seated. You may also be wondering whether the standing desks you're seeing popping up around the office would actually help you be more physically active at work.

Not only does physical activity improve brain, bone, and muscle health, but it can also reduce your risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and some cancers. Unfortunately, sedentary jobs make it all too easy to move less.

Standing desks may seem like an ideal solution to being more physically active at work, but that's not really the case. Here are the health perks that standing desks do offer and how you can incorporate more movement into your workday.

What Is a Standing Desk?

A standing desk is a workstation that allows you to work in a standing position instead of a seated one. Some standing desks are whole pieces of furniture you can adjust to your height whether you're sitting or standing. Others are desktop risers that hold your computer monitor and equipment.

Whether you're sitting or standing at your desk, ergonomics matters. You want your body to be in a neutral position. A neutral position provides maximum comfort because it reduces stress on your muscles and joints and reduces your risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder.

How Much Should You Stand or Sit?

There is no specific guideline for how much of your time you should be sitting or standing at work. Individual factors, like health limitations and current activity levels, may influence how long you are able to stand.

The key to making your body feel good after a day of desk work is to change positions frequently. Working in the same posture for prolonged periods is not healthy.

If you're not used to standing at work, start with a short period of standing followed by a longer period of sitting and gradually work your way up to longer periods of standing. Remember to check in with your body. Cramping, stiffness, and soreness indicate it's time to switch positions, stretch, or walk around.

Benefits of a Standing Desk

Standing desks can be beneficial to your health. While you won't necessarily notice physical changes, you may see benefits in other areas, particularly in how you feel.

Less Discomfort and Sleepiness

Research found that people with overweight and obesity had less overall discomfort and back discomfort when using a sit–stand desk. However, they also tended to have more leg discomfort. The researchers think the leg soreness may come from those muscles getting more use than normal.

Another finding from this research was standing desks seemed to perk people up. The study participants who used a standing desk were not as sleepy or as physically tired as those who sat at their desks the whole time.

Physical Health

According to research, standing desks may also produce a significant improvement in fasting triglycerides and insulin resistance in people with overweight and obesity who have known cardiovascular disease. However, the benefits of standing over sitting may stop there. The researchers did not detect a change in exercise activity, step counts, weight, or other physical measures.

Satisfaction and Mood

In one small study, people who used a standing desk reported higher levels of satisfaction with comfort, customizability, and overall personal workplace. However, even though they spent less time sitting, they didn't have any changes in health outcomes after six months.

In another study, using a standing desk for short periods of time made people more engaged in their tasks. The study participants were more interested, enthusiastic, and alert when standing compared to sitting. Standing also didn't seem to affect their reading comprehension or creativity.

How Standing Desks Compare to Sitting and Walking

You may think that standing at your desk instead of sitting will help you burn more calories—and it does. It's just not enough to really make a difference.

Over the course of one hour, someone who weighs 170 pounds, for example, will burn 139 calories when seated, compared to 186 when standing. That's a difference of less than 50 calories. To put this into perspective, an average adult needs to eat around 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day.

Walking is a great way to go if you want to increase your energy expenditure during the workday. By walking for an hour, you can burn more than 300 calories—far more than you can by sitting or standing. Plus, the faster you walk, the more you'll burn.

Start small if you're not used to it. Take a leisurely stroll—you don't even have to go that far at first. Gradually work your way up to longer distances and a brisk pace.

Why Walking Matters

Research shows substituting periods of sitting with standing doesn't seem to have a big effect on how much energy you use. What does is when you mix up periods of sitting or standing with walking. Then you're using significantly more energy.

Sometimes even if you are using a standing desk, being on your feet for long periods of time can cause low back pain. The remedy: Take walking breaks. Walking helps keep your low back flexible and can help reduce low back pain.

If you feel like you can't get away from your desk to exercise, consider a treadmill desk. Research has shown using a treadmill desk can significantly increase energy expenditure and metabolic rate compared to sitting at your desk.

Better yet, step away from your desk and get outside. Not only will you be getting your daily steps in, but you may also feel better. Being in nature improves mood, mental health, and emotional well-being.

Start a walking group with coworkers. Make a plan for bad-weather days—and don't forget to hit up the water cooler when you get back.

How To Stay Active During the Workday

Whether you're standing or sitting at your desk, it's important to make physical activity a high priority. Find something you enjoy. Exercise should be fun and rewarding at the same time.

Take advantage of any programs or benefits your employer offers:

  • Discounts for off-site exercise facilities
  • Flextime and paid activity breaks
  • Incentives for active commuting
  • On-site gyms
  • Walking paths

If your company doesn't provide them, request for these programs to be put in place. Not only will they benefit you, but they can also benefit your employer by boosting morale, increasing productivity, and reducing absenteeism.

Workplaces that encourage physical activity can have a positive effect on the health of their staff. One study found "workplace interventions significantly reduced body weight, BMI, and waist circumference."

Body mass index, or BMI, is a biased and outdated metric that uses your weight and height to make assumptions about body fat, and by extension, your health. This metric is flawed in many ways and does not factor in your body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. Despite its flaws, the medical community still uses BMI because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze health data.

Adults should be getting at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. Moderate-intensity physical activity includes any activity that increases your heart rate.

An alternative to this plan is to get at least 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of vigorous-intensity physical activity a week. Vigorous-intensity activities include jogging, running, carrying heavy loads upstairs, shoveling snow, or participating in a strenuous fitness class.

You could also combine moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and adjust the times accordingly. If you can, spread out aerobic activity throughout the week. For example, do activities like jogging, swimming, roller skating, cycling, and brisk walking every other day or so instead of multiple days back to back.

A Quick Review

A standing desk won't help you burn enough calories to make a noticeable difference, but it can help boost your mood during the workday. Changing positions from standing to sitting more frequently may also leave you with fewer aches and pains in your body.

Being at a desk all day can make it challenging to get moving. Take advantage of your employer's physical activity programs. Go on walking breaks and/or start a walking group with your coworkers. Walking can also help reduce pain and discomfort.

The next time the break room conversation centers around standing desks, you can chime in with all the health benefits these desks do and don't offer.

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14 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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