Why a Standing Desk is NOT a Cure for Sitting All Day.

Why a Standing Desk is NOT a Cure for Sitting All Day.

  • By Susannah Steers
  • October 16, 2015

“Sitting is the new smoking!” The headlines have been rife with warnings about the dire consequences we all face if we sit all day at work.  For a while, evidence seemed to suggest that people who sit at work every day are at greater risk of dying sooner.

In response to that early research, and in an attempt to stave off death-by-sitting, a whole host of new products have come onto the market to save you from your butt-sitting self. Early on office workers were encouraged to sit on stability balls. The idea was that an unstable seat would at least stimulate the core while you were sitting, protecting your back. And then came the standing desk, designed to actually get you out of a sitting position while you work. If sitting is killing you, then not sitting will help you live longer, right? And then came the multi-tasking wonder – the treadmill desk.  This funky piece of office equipment pulls double-duty; getting you walking and increasing your heart rate while you work. On the surface, these seem like great health products, but is standing all day really any better than sitting all day?  Do these fancy gadgets really reduce our risk of dying?

In a word – no. Because it turns out sitting itself isn’t the problem. It’s likely the lack of overall movement that does it. A new study in  International Journal of Epidemiology  suggests that “previously reported relationships between sitting time and health outcomes may be due in part to low total daily energy expenditure.” For people who are mostly sedentary, there is little difference in mortality rates between people who sit or people who stand. What does seem to make a difference how much you actually MOVE every day! Although a standing desk does succeed in getting you out of your chair – it likely won’t combat the perils of a mostly sedentary lifestyle. So if standing desks aren’t the answer, what is?

Here’s the thing – we need to MOVE our bodies to be healthy. We think and learn better when we move. Our hearts can pump blood and oxygen into our whole bodies more easily when we move regularly. Our joints and  bony structures are better supported when we move. Our soft tissues and organs work more effectively when we move. We sleep better when we’ve moved during the day, allowing our restorative functions to do their jobs more effectively. Moving your body is about more than our current, popular notions around  physical fitness. Movement promotes the overall health of every single system in the body. Regular and varied movement supports important dynamic relationships between these different systems; relationships that inform and integrate the body as a whole. Sitting all day doesn’t help. But neither does standing, if you’re not doing anything more than standing at your desk.

The key seems to be finding ways to move your body more fully, more often over the course of the day. Health and fitness professionals have been encouraging people to go for a brisk walk at lunch for years. But that still leaves several sedentary hours on either side of that lunch break. What if you could be the office rebel, and take five minutes every hour or so to stand up, walk around, and move your body? At first, you might get a few strange looks from your office mates – but who cares if you feel better and live longer? It’s really that simple. Get up and get moving.

Here’s a list of 8 simple things you can add to your day that will help you get moving:

  1. Arm Circles: Stand up and do a few arm circles, forward and backward. Swing your arms forward across your body and then swing them back behind you. Roll your shoulders back a few times.
  2. Side Bend: Stand with your feet together (or at hip width if you don’t feel stable with them together), reach your right arm up to the sky and bend your body toward the left side. Stay grounded in your feet, gently engage your core, imagine your spine long and reach that right arm overhead and to the left. Take a few breaths in this position. Repeat on the other side.
  3. Side lunges: Stand with your feet wide apart. Keeping your hips square and your pelvis and spine upright, bend one knee, lunge to one side. Repeat on the other side 10 – 12 times.
  4. Squats: Or squat lunges. Do 10, rest for a few seconds and then do 10 more.
  5. Knee lifts: Do 10 pairs of high knee lifts. The movement feels like you’re doing a really exaggerated march. Try circling the knees as you lift them.
  6. Extend your spine: Legs at hip width apart, reach your arms overhead and arch back gently. Keep the neck and spine long as you do this – imagine the vertebrae like corks on a rising tide.  Come back to upright. Wave your arms over your head for  20-30 seconds.
  7. Wall push ups: Try a few wall push ups, or push ups against your desk. Or if you have room in your office to drop to the floor – go for a plank!
  8. Bridges: If you have the space to do a plank, then there’s room to do a few bridges too, (think pelvic thrust).

That last one probably won’t work in high heels and a skirt , but don’t let what you’re wearing keep you from moving. There are lots of things you can do. My list is a suggestion, not a prescription. You can do different things if you want. You don’t have to do them all every time. Work for a while, get up, do 2-3 of the movements, walk around for a couple of minutes and make sure to drink a little water. Go back to work for another hour, then try a couple more of the exercises. Walk around again, and get a little more water. Ideally, you want to get up from your desk and move around at least once every hour. Set a timer on your watch, install and app on your smartphone. A friend of mine actually has an app that darkens the screen on her computer when the timer goes off. That’s a pretty good reminder!

Let your imagination run – what are the possibilities? Find things you like, and that you’re likely to do. Choose things that feel appropriate in your work place. Are there stairs where you work? Walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. If you’re on the 20th floor and that seems like too many stairs for you, then take the elevator to the 15th floor and walk up the last five. Gradually you’ll be able to add more floors to your inner city hike.  You could skip rope. You could throw on a little music (with your earphones on if you have to), and dance around for a few minutes. Rope some colleagues into the dance and I guarantee the laughs will improve office morale! Reach, push, pull, curl, stretch. bend, leap, jump, twist, contract, release, extend, hop, turn… the possibilities are literally endless. Just do it.

It doesn’t have to be public if you don’t want it to be. Just get up and move – it’s what the human body was meant to do! When we don’t move it, we lose it. Interrupting your work flow for movement breaks will take some getting used to, and some commitment to keep it going. But your body will thank you, and your overall health will improve. There is always a way. That standing desk is not the cure, but stand at your desk if that feels good. Just remember that your body needs more global movement to thrive.

What are some ways that you like to move at work? Share some of your best ones with us in the comments below. And if you need more suggestions, I’m happy to help!

Featured Image Credit to: jsmjr under Creative Commons 2.0.

Cindy - November 1, 2015

Great tips! My favorite reminder to move at work is to walk and meet. Pick up the phone, ask for a few minutes and meet in a conference room for a conversation. More creative solutions are found and two or move add movement to the day!

    Susannah Steers - November 9, 2015

    I LOVE the walking meeting Cindy! The change of venue refreshes the brain too! Every little extra moment of movement adds up over the course of the day and does good things for our bodies.

Bonnie Copeland - November 2, 2015

As someone who has had jobs where I had to stand all day I wondered about this standing desk business. It’s not easy on your body to stand for 6-8 hours either! I love how much common sense is in your advice! I’d forgotten about some of these easy things to do!

    Susannah Steers - November 9, 2015

    It’s true, standing is just as hard as sitting if you have to do it all day. The body works best when it’s moving. The benefit of that is that movement helps our brains work better too! Sometimes when we’re focussed on our work, it’s easy to forget to move around. The more we can make it a habit – the better we’ll feel!

Lilia Lee - November 6, 2015

Wonderful activities you share here. I thought that the treadmill desk was a good idea for moving. Sorry to see you disagree.

    Susannah Steers - November 9, 2015

    Thanks Lilia. I wonder about the unconscious multi-tasking aspect of the walking desk. It’s great in that it gets you up, and keeps you moving – so you’re not in a static position. On the negative side, the movement of the spine and upper body would be restricted by the keyboard set up etc, which would affect the mechanics of the gait. Without great core support, I suspect some structural issues could develop. The ergonomics of the desk set up would have to be perfect and easily adjustable. And think about anyone you’ve seen trying to text on their phones while walking – both activities are less fluid, and effective. My thought would be to do the standing desk for a while if it feels good for you – but don’t rely on it all the time. It would be better to move around in as often and in as many different ways as you can. 🙂

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