With the rise of standing desks, office workers hope to eliminate the health risks of prolonged sitting, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and premature death. But they may do well to run off calories instead, a new study suggests.
In one of the few studies that carefully counted how many calories people burned while sitting at a desk, standing, or taking a leisurely walk, researchers found little difference between plopping down or standing up. Standing for an hour can burn about an additional nine calories, about the amount in a single gummy bear. In contrast, slow walking burned 2.4 to 2.7 times more calories than standing or sitting, respectively. If office workers can count an hour of walking each day — trips to the bathroom, walks to the printer, or steps on a treadmill desk — they could easily burn an extra 130 calories. That’s slightly above what previous research suggests could help people keep pounds off, the authors report in the Journal of physical activity and health.
“If you’re looking for weight management or just energy expenditure, standing isn’t much more beneficial than sitting,” Seth Creasy, an exercise physiologist at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study, told Ars. Of course, burning calories isn’t the only reason people choose a standing desk. Standing up straight can be beneficial for productivity or posture, Creasy said. However, more research is needed to know if those benefits are real, as the studies done so far have had mixed or inconclusive results.
For energy consumption, however, the literature becomes quite clear. In previous studies of the differences between standing and sitting, researchers found small changes in calorie burn, similar to those found by Creasy and his colleagues. With their new study, they tried to pin those calories down for good and look at more than a single activity at a time. No one comes into the office and sits, stands, or walks for eight straight hours, Creasy explains. People switch positions, pause and move around, he said.
To see whether there were any effects of these shifts, Creasy and colleagues set up an experiment with combinations of activities. Using a total of 74 healthy volunteers, the researchers randomly assigned 18 to sit at a desk with a computer for 15 minutes and then stand for 15 minutes without fidgeting. Another 18 participants sat watching television for 15 minutes and then walked. Twenty started walking slowly – at a self-selected speed of about two and a half miles per hour – and then sat down and watched TV. And the final 18 stood and then sat down at a desk with a computer.
During each 30-minute activity combination, the researchers had the participants wear face masks, which essentially measure their exhaust. This allowed the researchers to calculate exactly how many calories they burned.
The researchers were curious to see whether the order of activities changed how much energy participants used in total. For example, starting with a walk can accelerate the burning of calories while sitting. But it turns out that the order doesn’t matter. There was a small increase, but nothing statistically or clinically significant, Creasy said. The order didn’t matter for the other combinations either.
Overall, walking for 15 minutes burned an average of 55.9 calories, sitting with a computer burned 19.63 calories, sitting and watching TV burned 18.66 calories, and standing burned 21.92 calories. There was no statistical significance between the sitting activities and standing, the researchers noted. And even if it results in a few extra calories burned, it’s unclear if that could provide a measurable health benefit.
Like all studies, this one has some limitations. The study participants were healthy and mostly lean, unlike the general population and perhaps the people most interested in using a standing desk to lose weight. But Creasy said he expects the overall findings to hold up in obese people. The study also had people stand or sit as still as possible, so it couldn’t capture significant variations due to fidgeting or shifting in either scenario.
The study also fails to address a fundamental question in the sitting versus standing debate: Are the negative health effects of prolonged sitting caused by sitting itself or by a lack of activity? Like prolonged sitting, a lack of exercise is also linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. And previous research has shown that those who sit for long periods of time but are also active do not face the same health risks. But other research has suggested that sitting alone can be bad, causing discomfort and poor circulation. Still, standing for long periods of time can also cause problems such as enlarged veins.
On this bigger question, “the jury is still out,” Creasy said. Researchers are exploring whether exercise can overpower our sedentary lifestyles, and whether standing desks benefit productivity, comfort, and other health concerns.
There have been some small studies showing that standing desks can increase productivity, but a few others have shown that this is not the case. Others are inconclusive. For example, in a recent study of the productivity of call center employees who were assigned a standing or sitting desk, researchers found that the standing employees were a whopping 53 percent more productive than seated employees. But the study lacked basic data on how productive each group was to begin with, so the results aren’t conclusive. An interesting finding, however, was that in surveys, the standing workers reported less back pain and discomfort than their sedentary counterparts.
While researchers are figuring out which desk setup is best, Creasy points out that moving is always a good idea. He suggests getting creative by thinking of ways to add occasional walking to your daily routine, such as moving the printer farther down the hall or holding walking meetings. He points out that the benefits can be seen just by walking calmly and slowly. This is not an exercise, he emphasizes.
Journal of physical activity and health2016. DOI: 10.1123/jpah.2015-0419 (About DOIs).