The dangers of sitting for long stretches of time have come into focus in recent years, with the sedentary act connected to increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. More and more people have been looking at ways of combating "sitting sickness," from using convertible standing desks in the office to having standing meetings.
But a new study says that despite the evidence that too much sitting is linked to these health risks, the health benefits of standing desks and other strategies to promote standing are not proven.
The medical review, published today in the Cochrane Library, looked at 20 studies that focused on various strategies to keep people on their feet rather than sitting all day. The studies had a total of 2,174 participants in the U.S., U.K. and Europe.
In the six studies for standing desks, researchers found that people did increase their time on their feet somewhat from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the study. However, the small sample size meant researchers couldn't conclusively recommend standing desks. They did point out that other studies in which participants were encouraged to do more activities such as a take a walk during a break only had a modest decrease in time spent sitting.
"This Cochrane Review 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 from the Health Research and Social Development Forum, Thapathali, Nepal, said in a statement today. "Given the popularity of sit-stand desks in particular, we think that people who are considering investing in sit-stand desks and the other interventions covered in this review should be aware of the limitations of the current evidence base in demonstrating health benefits."
Shrestha stressed the need for additional research to prove that these popular standing desks are helpful to a variety of people. Co-author Jos Verbeek said it was not yet clear from these studies that simply standing instead of sitting was a markedly healthier.
"At present, there is not enough high quality evidence available to determine whether spending more time standing at work can repair the harms of a sedentary lifestyle," Verbeek, from the Cochrane Work Review Group, Kuopio, Finland, said in a statement today.
"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," Verbeek said.
As previous studies have shown the dangers of sitting more clearly, it will take time to see how different incentives to be active are helpful, experts said.
Dr. Alice Chen, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, said that more study is needed but that it is already clear that being more active than sedentary can help people maintain their health. She pointed out that people may need more information about how to ease into using standing desks so they can last more than 30 minutes at a time and that future studies may find more proof of the health benefits of standing versus sitting.
"Just putting in sit-stand desks for everyone doesn’t mean that people who sit for eight hours are going to stand for hours," she said. "I think the take-home point is more in terms how can we effectively communicate to the working public the benefits and adverse effects of sitting."
She also pointed out standing forces people to use and strengthen the muscles that help with posture.
Dr. Melanie Swift, director of the Occupational Health Clinic at Vanderbilt Medical Center, said with more study, experts will better understand if standing desks are a better choice than other initiatives, such as moving printers across the office or having walking meetings.
"It’s not clear that the cost of ... standing desks is going to have enough impact on public health to be a wise investment on a large scale," she explained.
She did say that sitting for long periods of time is clearly bad for your health.
"Try not to sit more than 30 minutes at a time, standing up when you get a phone call. ... It can be an opportunity to stand than to sit at the desk," Swift said. "We probably don’t need to go to extremes but common sense simple interventions, they keep you safer."