“Stand to work if you like, but don’t brag about the benefits,” reported National Public Radio earlier this year. “Experts say your standing desk is basically useless,” echoed the Huffington Post.
No. It wasn’t standing desks—but the studies of these desks that tested them—that failed.
The “studies were very poorly designed…and had very few participants,” concluded a review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a well-respected international network of scientists that systemically and rigorously evaluates scientific evidence.
The Cochrane review did not find that standing at the desks had no benefits, rather that people in the studies who had these desks stood at them for only about an hour a day. That’s not long enough for a true test of them. (Most standing desks can be easily adjusted for sitting or standing.)
“Those headlines let the public down,” says James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic who helped develop these standing desks.
“Misleading news stories like this demoralize people who are making an effort to make themselves healthier. It’s more than getting a gym membership or going to a yoga class once a week. These people have fundamentally changed how they work every day.”
But could standing desks lead to varicose veins, as the Huffington Post suggested?
“It’s not good to stand stock-still like a British soldier outside Buckingham Palace for protracted periods of time,” counters Levine. “Blood gets congested in the veins of people who are predisposed to varicose veins.”
But standing still all day isn’t the goal.
“We want people to get up off their bottoms and move,” says Levine. “In order to move, first you have to get up. And preliminary data suggests that a standing desk helps people break up their sitting time and move more.”
It’s clear that we need much bigger, better, longer studies, he agrees. “But preliminary data suggest that these desks are a very good idea.”
Other ways of moving
What’s more, a standing desk is just one option.
“For some, it’s a standing desk, for some it’s a treadmill desk, for others it’s walk-and-talk meetings, and for some it’s none of the above,” notes Levine.
“We know that being sedentary is associated with a catalog of health complications, from diabetes and heart disease to cancer to poor cognition, and so on.”
Good for diabetes
If you have type 2 diabetes, for example, brief bouts of walking or simple strength exercises may lower blood sugar and insulin levels.
Scientists in Australia assigned 24 sedentary overweight or obese adults with diabetes to spend a day sitting for 8 hours or to break up the sitting with either a walk or with strength exercises for 3 minutes every half hour. The strength exercises were half-squats, calf raises, gluteal contractions, and knee raises.
On the days the participants did either walking or strength exercises, they had lower blood sugar, insulin, and C-peptide (a measure of insulin secretion).
Bottom Line: It’s best to get up out of our chairs and move around at least every hour or two.
Sources: Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. 3: CD010912, 2016; Diabetes Care 39: 964, 2016.
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