Are Standup Desks Worth The Hype?
"Sitting is the new smoking" is the new zeitgeist for millennial Chiropractors and Physical Therapists. The dangers of chronic sitting and poor work related posture have been written about ad infinitum to the point where we find ourselves writing letters to employers to get their workers stand up desks nearly every week. Even the Air Force base I work at has numerous people utilizing standing/sitting work stations. Despite the recent popularity of standing desks, are they really solving our problems?
Yes. And no....
Sitting is only a part of the problem. Studies that have looked at work and school populations comparing the differences between people using standing vs sitting desks found that standing desks seem to reduce musculoskeletal symptoms related to the neck, shoulders, and upper back and reduced sitting time (obviously), but they are largely ineffective at making people more active overall. There in lies the actual problem. Despite the reduction in pain and discomfort from utilizing a standing desk, it does little to solve the primary problem in the 21st century workplaces.....being sedentary.
Sitting, in and of itself, is not the primary concern related to health issues arising from desk based workstations. The problems arise from the fact that we are LARGELY sedentary during the work day. Whether you are sitting or standing, the reality is that you are not moving. Many of the musculoskeletal symptoms that arise from the workplace have a stronger correlation with inactivity than they do with the particular posture you are in (sitting vs standing). More important than the musculoskeletal symptoms related to the workplace are the potential cardio-pulmonary issues that can arise from being inactive during an 8 hour work day. Your body wants to move. It loves movement and activity. Whether you are sitting or standing for 8 hours is immaterial, the fact is that we are stationary, and that is the largest problem.
So, what do we do about it?
First, get a desk that allows you to go from sitting to standing. Reducing neck, back, and shoulder symptoms is still important, and those desks have proved their mettle when it comes to alleviating a lot of the issues associated with chronic sitting. Change positions often. Sit for awhile then stand for awhile. There are benefits to it, but it isn't an end all be all. Once you have your desk that allows you to sit or stand you must keep in mind the importance of regular movement. I'll give you some advice based on what I do when I go down to work for the Air Force.
When I'm not in the airplane my job is largely administrative. I'm not immune to the effects of a sedentary job when I'm in the office, but I have a few strategies I employ to eliminate the monotony of sitting all day.
1) I'm an early riser and love morning workouts before my day begins. Working out first thing in the morning puts a great deal of activity in my day before most people have gotten out of bed. This was definitely an acquired taste for me in the last 5-6 years. I understand most people don't want to get out of bed to workout first thing in the AM (and if you're not getting at least 7 hours of sleep, I strongly recommend not working out in the morning), so I have another recommendation: work out on your lunch break. I bring my lunch to work so that when everybody else is going to lunch I can sneak a quick walk or workout in before I get back to the rat race. Try to put a 20-30 minute walk in your day if possible. In fact, see if you can get to 10,000 steps each day. Why 10,000? Because its a goal. 10,000 is an arbitrary number but it ensures you're being active. Let's face it, hitting the gym at 4-5 PM when the work day is over is tough to do. It takes a lot of willpower for me to get going at that time of day. Putting the workout in the middle of the day is definitely the way forward. Petition your employer to put a fitness facility in the office if they are serious about workplace health and wellness.
2) Last, minimize emails and phone calls. In the Air Force, we love emails and phones despite the fact that we all work down the hall from each other. If I have to communicate with someone, I will first get up and walk to their office or their adjacent building. If they are not at their desk, I will go back and email. Call me old fashioned but I believe face to face interaction is a lost art that we need to prioritize (besides, a 2 minute conversation is far more efficient than 3 hours of emailing back and forth to accomplish simple tasks). This will ensure you are getting up and moving regularly. It may not seem as convenient but it is worth it.
To conclude, a desk that allows you to sit or stand has benefits related to end of day discomfort in your back, neck, and shoulders but it is no substitute for regular physical activity. Regular physical activity needs to be the priority for improving workplace health.