The Sitting Versus Standing Debate

It was back in 2013 that the phrase sitting is the new smoking was coined. It was the shorthand catch-phrase that emerged from a Harvard Business Review article titled Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation by Nilofer Merchant. Others have echoed the idea, such as Mayo Clinic cardiologist Martha Grogan who said, “For people who sit most of the day, their risk of heart attack is about the same as smoking.” This is serious business because on a global scale people do sit an average of 7.7 hours per day, while others make estimates as high at 15 hours per day.


What to do? Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people immediately jumped onto the bandwagon of assuming that if sitting is bad, then standing must be good. As a result the standing desk emerged as a solution, along with flexible sit-stand desks that adjust quickly to go either way.

But assuming the opposite of a thing is better doesn’t always pan out. In fact, the science is showing that merely standing as the solution to sitting too much doesn’t work. First of all, I should say the research on this is not stellar, suffering from small numbers of participants and poor design (short timeframes and lacking control groups). Setting those issues aside, pro-standing people like to claim it burns more calories than sitting. True, but the difference is so small it’s negligible. Talk to people who stand on their feet all day at work and they’ll tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. As with most things related to health, moderation is the key. Sitting all the time is bad, and standing all the time is bad. What most of the studies were really looking at was whether or not interventions such as sit-stand desks get people to stand more. As it turns out, they don’t. Just because you give someone the option to stand doesn’t mean they will.

The whole sitting versus standing debate, however, got off on the wrong foot to begin with and completely misses the most essential point, which is lack of movement. In other words, the problem is being sedentary, whether you’re sitting our standing. You also have to look at the geography of research studies and how that impacts results. A British study might find that standing desks have not positive health effects on people. But know the real problem is being sedentary, the result can be put into perspective by realizing that Brits already move twice as much as Americans! The tend to walk and bike to work or train stations for their daily commute while American’s sit on their butts in cars to do that. It’s about getting real exercise.

sittingversusstanding-debate2This is why people who arrange their workspaces along the lines of the action office concept dating all the way back to the early 1960s at office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller do experience real benefits. If you stand instead of sit but everything you need is still within arm’s reach, you’re still being sedentary. But if you have to walk across your office space to answer the phone or access supplies and printouts and such, you’ll find yourself moving around all day, and that’s a good thing.

If you go for an active office setup, then a standing desk may provide more benefits than sitting or sit-stand options. If you’re already standing, it’s very easy to start moving, such as to take a walk down the hall to collect your thoughts and so on. But let’s face it, if you’re already sitting, you’re more likely to remain sitting. Also, when’s the last time you fell asleep standing up? And after eating a meal, your blood sugar levels return to normal quicker than if you sit.

The message here is clear: If you want your workers to be healthier and not sit themselves to death, you need to get them moving.

October 11, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016   ergonomics, sitting, standing, Wellness   

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