Standing all day sounds like something most people would actively try and avoid. We take cushy office jobs to avoid the harsh physical labour of utilising our lower limbs all day for their designed purpose. That’s why the idea of a standing desk seems like such an affront to our sensibilities. It’s backwards thinking, it’s counter-intuitive, it just plain ol’ doesn’t make sense. Why would I stand at my desk when I’m doing this job so I get to sit all day? Well, it turns out standing desks aren’t bonkers, in fact, they make a whole lot of sense, because research shows that sitting as much as we do is the most morbidly terrifying thing ever and I’m never going to do it again.
Why You Should Never Sit Ever Again, Ever
A typical office worker spends roughly 5 hours and 41 minutes a day sitting and we, until recently, thought nothing of it. Sure, we know sitting isn’t as good as exercise, and if you do a more active job you’re going to be fitter than if you sit at a desk all day, but that’s nothing a few hours of gym a week can’t fix, right? It’s this attitude of casual complacency that led to Dr James Levine (who also published a paper called ‘The Extreme Dangers of Sitting’) likening sitting this much to smoking, sparking the punchy catchphrase heading EVERY article on the matter: ‘sitting is the new smoking’. But what’s all the fuss about? I mean, it can’t be that bad, can it? (SPOILER: it can)
The evidence in favour of standing over sitting has been around since the 1950s. In ’53, British researchers noticed that the rates of heart disease in London bus drivers, who remain seated for their job, were twice as high as bus conductors, who remain standing all day.
Since then, more research has been conducted and more terrifying statistics have been unearthed. Australian researchers, in a study of 8,800 men and women with an average age of 53, found that for every extra hour of sitting a day, risk of death by heart disease increased 18%. Another study produced similar results, finding that those who spend more than just 2 hours a day sitting are 125% more at risk of developing heart-related health issues than those who don’t. Even controlling for the amount of exercise people do, it was found that ‘excessive sitters’ still had a 34% greater risk of developing heart failure.
Standing may be stationary, but there’s certainly a lot more energy that goes into it than sitting. Using a standing desk is going to burn you 40% more calories than sitting. Over a year, standing for just two and a half hours a day, can burn up to 20 pounds. Not only does standing help burn calories to shed the pounds, sitting actively hinders your body’s ability to lose fat. To get all ‘sciency’ for a sec, the tiny capillaries which run through your body are lined with the lipoprotein lipase. This is an enzyme which helps break down a variety of fats in the bloodstream. When you’re sat down for a few hours, these enzymes start switching off, and by the end of the day their activity drops to 50%. This means that an integral part of your body’s system for burning fat is only half working after a day of sitting, which kind of makes that 5-2 diet a bit redundant doesn’t it?
In a controlled test where diet and exercise regime were standardised across all participants, researchers saw that some of the participants were still gaining weight, while the rest weren’t. What they discovered was that those who weren’t gaining weight were standing up and moving around for an average of two and a half hours more a day. All the participants had office jobs and worked at sitting desks and no one was going to a gym, but some just got up and moved more for various reasons, and this was enough to make a noticeable difference in their ability to lose weight. So it’s less about trying to counteract the damaging effects of sitting by popping to the gym for an hour after work (because evidence suggests that can only do so much), but more about mixing your day of sitting with more movement and general activity.
The link between obesity and diabetes is well documented, and the fact that the sort of fat gained from an inactive, sedentary lifestyle is a strong warning sign for the first stages of diabetes is no surprise. But sitting increases the risk of diabetes in more ways than just putting on weight.
Sitting reduces the effectiveness of regulating levels of glucose in the bloodstream, causes your cells to become less responsive to insulin and is a more important factor than exercise for those already at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Without sounding too much like a Daily Mail headline: yes, sitting even causes cancer.
A 2011 study found that extended periods of sitting could be responsible for up to:
- 49,000 cases of breast cancer
- 43,000 cases of colon cancer
- 37,200 cases of lung cancer
- 30,600 cases of prostate cancer
- 12,000 cases of endometrial cancer
- 1,800 cases of ovarian cancer
If heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer wasn’t enough to scare you, then maybe straight up mortality will.
Taken from the Atlantic, here’s what a study of over 200,000 Australians aged 45+ found about the problems of sitting:
“Its most striking finding was that people who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40% higher risk of dying in the next three years than people who sat less than four hours a day. This was after adjusting for factors such as age, weight, physical activity and general health status, all of which affect the death risk. It also found a clear dose-response effect: the more people sat, the higher their risk of death.”
The final ‘nail in the coffin’ as it were, is a 2012 study which found that by reducing their sitting to just three hours per day, the life expectancy of the average American would go up by two years.
Take a Stand(ing desk)!
So sitting certainly isn’t doing us any favours, seems like standing’s the way forward then?
Well there are a few famous standers throughout history who would certainly agree; Ernest Hemingway, Kierkegaard, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Donald Rumsfeld and Virginia Woolf.
On top of that first hand reports like this one give a good indication that standing doesn’t just seem like a good idea on paper:
“My back feels great. My posture is better than ever. I lost 3-5 pounds in the first couple of weeks from standing alone. I’m way more active throughout the day, pacing, dancing, fidgeting. Because I’m used to standing all day at work, standing in line anywhere for long periods of time on weekends doesn’t bother me in the least.
Thanks to my standing desk, I began naturally splitting activities up into active work (while standing) and passive work (while sitting). Explicitly shifting gears like that helps my brain tackle the right kind of work given my physical and mental capacity at the moment.”
AND you can easily build a standing desk for $22 no problem.
But, it’s not all sunshine, rainbows and happiness, standing all the time isn’t a miracle cure, and you know what they say about too much of a good thing? It gives you varicose veins.
On top of that, it increases pressure on the knees and reduces lubrication, which can cause tearing. These sort of problems only really start to be an issue when you’re standing 8 to 10 hours a day, which most people wouldn’t be doing.
So the issue isn’t sitting, so much as it is being inactive. Sprinkling your day with little bouts of activity and generally weaving more movement into your life is what’s going to add years to your life. Doing one thing all day every day, be it sitting or standing, are both going to come with some health issues.
The best option for this is definitely a standing desk. Have a sit every now and then when your legs start to ache, a bit of a walk around and you’ll add years to your life. If a standing desk is out of the question, then just try and incorporate a bit more activity in your day-to-day business; standing meetings, having a walk in your lunch break or even just stand up every hour or so and loosen up a tad.