Vitality

Sitting Interventions: Despite Promise, Standing Desks May Not Reduce Sedentary Lifestyle

standing desk
Standing up during the day at work may not reduce your total sitting time, or fight a sedentary lifestyle. Pixabay, public domain

The consequences of a sedentary lifestyle are clearer than ever before: Sitting all day can impair your muscle movement, brain activity, and even your respiratory system, among countless other aspects of your health. It may contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. But what’s less clear — and remains a hot topic of debate — is how to solve this widespread issue that is helping to fuel an obesity epidemic across the country.

In new research published in Cochrane Review, researchers examined the effects of “sitting interventions,” or strategies that aim to spur sedentary employees into reducing their sitting time at work. They found that typical sitting interventions, like investing in a standing desk or going for short walks throughout the day, don’t always reduce total sitting time. In fact, in many cases it didn’t make much of a difference at all.

The researchers analyzed 20 studies that together included 2,174 participants in the U.S. and Europe. They found that using standing desks reduced people’s sitting time from 30 minutes to two hours on average, but that there was “very low quality evidence” that this benefited them. Taking walks during the workday, meanwhile, didn’t exactly reduce the total amount of time spent sitting at work.

The findings come on the heels of other reports that have brought discouraging news to those of us who spend eight or more hours working at a desk each day. A 2015 study found that daily exercise didn’t reduce the risks associated with sitting during most of our waking hours , among them a higher risk of mortality. Another study found that even if people used standing desks at work, the amount of sitting time outside of work didn’t change. To employees stuck in offices, slouching over their laptops or their phones, it seems impossible; no matter what we do, we won’t be able to escape the consequences of sitting.

“[The study] shows that, at the moment, there is uncertainty over how big an impact sit-stand desks can make on reducing the time spent sitting at work in the short term,” Nipun Shrestha of the Health Research and Social Development Forum in Nepal, an author of the study, said in a statement. “There is also low quality evidence of modest benefits for other types of interventions,” such as standing desks. As a result, workers “should be aware of the limitations of the current evidence base in demonstrating health benefits.”

However, it’s no reason to give up. The latest study merely shows that there are no clear answers about the efficacy of standing or brief walks as sitting interventions, and many of the studies analyzed were poorly designed. Certainly getting in as much gym time or outdoor time before, during, and after work — and on the weekends — will add up over time. Standing desks may aid in improved posture, cognitive function, and in moving around and stretching more, but they may not always aid in losing weight or getting stronger. Sticking to a daily aerobic activity, like swimming, biking, or running, can counter the effects of sitting. At the end of the day, it may be a mix of various things that keeps your body active — from standing desks, to brisk walks around the block, to an hour of aerobic exercise every evening.

“It is important that workers who sit at a desk all day take an interest in maintaining and improving their well being both at work and at home,” co-author Jos Verbeek said in the statement. “Standing instead of sitting hardly increases energy expenditure, so we should not expect a sit-stand desk to help in losing weight. It’s important that workers and employers are aware of this, so that they can make more informed decisions.”

Source: Kukkonen-Harjula KT, Shrestha N, Verbeek JH, Ijaz S, Hermans V, Bhaumik S. Workplace interventions for reducing sitting at work. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2016.

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