Sit-Stand Desks and Employee Health

According to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, desk jobs have increased by 83% since 1960, accounting for nearly half of all jobs in the United States. Prolonged sedentary behavior amongst office employees contribute to a myriad of health complications, including but not limited to cardiovascular morbidity, weight gain, and premature death.

These health concerns have given rise to company-sponsored classes on office yoga, office spaces dedicated to exercise, and ergonomic-friendly desk equipment. One particular piece of equipment that has been trending recently is the sit-stand desk or standing desk. Sit-stand desks can either mean adjustable attachments that sit atop of a desk or adjustable desk-tops that quickly allow users to switch between sitting or standing as they work.

While the emergence of sit-stand desks may seem like a recent innovation in office culture, its use and purported benefits can be traced back as early as the late 17th century.

In 1886, the Scientific American advertised the sit-stand desk as the “improved desk,” consisting of “a standing desk and a sitting desk held together by suitable devices in such a manner that they can be disconnected when desired and used singly.” Notable users of some version of the sit-stand desk include Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Dickens.

While more recent research have shown conclusive connections between sedentary behavior, or stationary activity with low energy output, and health concerns including but not limited to unhealthy aging, poorer bone health and diabetes, the actual efficacy of the standing desk in reducing these health risks is still unproven.

Many of the positive reports from users are anecdotal, and studies on the subject can neither confirm nor deny its health benefits. Additionally, some researchers have questioned whether or not standing is even a viable, healthier alternative to sitting as the calories burned is often negligible and standing for long durations carry their own health implications on joints and limbs.

However, many health organizations, researchers and physicians will attest to the negative health impacts from prolonged sitting. For example, one such study published in the International Organization of Scientific Research’s Journal of Nursing and Health Science cited data suggesting accelerated muscle deterioration for those who sit for over five hours daily.

Although the standing desk’s benefits may be in question, reducing the amount of sit-time undoubtedly confers positive effects to the sedentary office worker. According to James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic who created a new approach to sedentary behavior called NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, “Excessive sitting is a lethal activity.”

In his research, Dr. Levine espoused that focusing on lower-impact daily activities such as walking down the hall, standing or taking the stairs may ultimately provide greater health benefits than traditional exercise.

The research findings thus far show sit-stand desks do reduce sit time and do not contribute to any health problems such as varicose veins or musculoskeletal pain. The results are unable to prove sit-stand desks are directly beneficial. What is clear is that sit-stand desks allow people to work comfortably and lessen sedentary behavior, which undoubtedly contributes to negative health. Though the evidence about specific benefits is still inconclusive, investing in a sit-stand desk could be a great way to improve your health, comfort, and add variety to your workspace.

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