Over the past several years, the media has vilified the common act of sitting. Headlines in magazines and on blogs warn spending extra time in your chair can increase your risk of cancer, cause diabetes, and shorten your life. Some outlets have even asserted sitting is "the new smoking." In an understandable effort to avoid falling prey to this apparent public health hazard, many people have turned to standing desks at work or otherwise made changes to reduce the amount of time they spend sitting on a daily basis. This shift, though, raises an important question: Is standing good for you? Is sitting really all that bad?
Benefits of Standing
Logically, standing seems like it would be the easy solution to the sitting problem. Is it really, though? What are some of the advantages that standing has over sitting?
Simply because you aren't sitting, it's easier to stand with good posture and resultantly reduce the lower back pain that long-term sitters sometimes deal with. Standing also improves your circulation and even makes it easier for you to breathe deeply and effectively, helping to cut down on inflammation in your joints and muscles.
Changes in Heart Rate
Most of the dangers of sitting are directly linked to the inactive nature of the position, so it stands to reason the more physically demanding act of standing would have the opposite effect. Standing, according to Texas Heart Institute cardiologist, Mohammad Saeed, MD, can increase your heart rate by as much as 10 to 20 beats per minute. Because your heart is working harder and your muscles are now working to keep you upright, standing also results in a slightly increased caloric expenditure.
Risks of Standing
It may be surprising, then, to learn that one 2015 study published in the journal Human Factors reported prolonged standing can be just as bad as sitting when it comes to muscle and joint pain. The study authors found standing for a full workday also caused lower back pain by increasing the amount of compression in the subjects' spines.
Notably, the study also reported the pains associated with standing were not lessened by sitting breaks and persisted for 30 minutes after the subjects had stopped sitting. It's also important to point out the age of the subject had no bearing on the amount of pain they felt after standing for hours; the 18-year-old workers were just as likely to have problems as those over 50.
The Research on Sitting
An ever-growing body of research has raised alarms as to the potential long-term risks of sitting. For example, the Mayo Clinic reports "recreational sitting" - like watching TV - for more than four hours per day is associated with a 50 percent increase in the incidence of death from any cause. The same study also found sitting increased the risk of suffering a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack, by 125 percent.
Hope for Sitting
It's important to note, however, that a more recent study into the effects of sitting completely contradicts these findings. One of the largest and longest studies on the topic, this particular piece followed more than 5,000 people for 16 years to get a detailed record of their sitting habits. The researchers considered different factors including the reason for sitting, as well as the age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, general health, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, and diet of the individual subjects.
Once all the information was compiled, the team found something surprising: There was no link between sitting and any risk of death.
With all of its thoroughness, though, the study did not consider other potential problems that could arise from prolonged sitting, such as back pain, obesity, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. So, this study may help to lessen concerns as to the murderous nature of sitting - but it does not completely exonerate it.
For example, a 2007 study published in the journal Diabetes associated the increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease commonly linked to sitting with inactivity. While sitting may not dramatically shorten your lifespan, then, it does mean you are moving less and burning fewer calories. This may put you at a greater risk of developing the types of conditions usually connected to a sedentary lifestyle.
Balancing Sitting and Standing
So, how are you to make sense of all this? Sitting won't kill you, but it's not great for you either. However, when it comes to muscle and joint pain, standing isn't any better. What position should you be in, then?
The fact is maintaining any position for hours at a time will create problems - either for your metabolism or for your musculoskeletal system. Your body is simply not designed to be sedentary. To lessen any discomfort you experience during the workday, then, do your best to insert activity in your routine. Even a brief five or ten-minute walk can be enough to alleviate the problems associated with sitting or standing for too long.
Due to the new interest in standing and the associated fear of sitting, the availability of standing desks has greatly increased recently. There are different styles ranging from adjustable rigs that rest on top of your standard desk and large work-surfaces that lift up to standing height to heavy, fixed work stations. These vary widely in price.
Based on the above research, though, are standing desks worth the money? They could be. Remember, the key is movement - not being locked into one position for too long. A desk that allows you to both stand and sit, then, would be the best option. Of course, you could also program movement into your day, forcing you to get up and move around. Even if you lack a standing desk, this would let you bypass the investment.
Is Standing Really Better?
In the end, is standing actually a suitable replacement for the dangerous sitting? Possibly. It appears to keep your metabolism slightly more active and could help you avoid certain conditions associated with a sedentary lifestyle. If you're trying to avoid or relieve joint pain, however, simply standing won't be enough. In fact, it can be just as problematic as sitting. Instead, you'll need to find opportunities to move around during your day.