Are Standing Desks Worth The Hype?

Sitting is harmful. So much so, that it’s been called “the new smoking” as researchers find additional links between sitting and diabetes.

It’s the harbinger of chronic disease. It leads to bad posture and depleted core strength. Sitting has also been accused of shortening your life—even if you exercise.

Any way you look at it, a rash of new research paints sitting as the bad guy. And, of course, we’re doing far too much of it.

With sitting being demonized as basically the worst thing for your health since sliced bread (we’re still mourning carbs), you can bet your bottom dollar that a new product market has sprung into existence that promises to get you off your caboose and into the correct position.

Enter the standing desk—actually, many different models of standing desks—that propose all manner of benefits.

Is there any research proving that standing is actually better for you than sitting, or are standing desks simply a placebo solution that masks the real problem of increasing lethargic lifestyles?

Let’s face it, there’s a big difference between standing and actual exercise.

We asked health experts for their opinion to find out.

From Unengaged Muscles to Compressed Organs, Here’s the Scientific Stance Against Sitting 

“Now, there is significant scientific research which absolutely proves sitting for long period of time is worse for your body than likely frequent smoking or drinking,” says Dr. Caleb Halulko, a board-certified chiropractor.

Dr. Halulko helps patients overcome a range of posture-related ailments at River of Life, a chiropractic and wellness center in Traverse City, Michigan.

The problem with sitting, he states, is that most people fail to engage their core muscles, including back, abdominal, and pelvic muscles, to stabilize themselves when doing so.

“If people were to assume proper posture (ear, shoulder, and hip in line) then sitting would not be as damaging to the body as it is,” he explains. “However, from a physics standpoint, sitting improperly places anywhere from 40% to 100% more force on your body.”

What does all that extra pressure do to your body?

According to Dr. Halulko, “These compressive forces wreak havoc on the back, making someone more susceptible to disc injuries and more prone to muscular problems from inactivation.”

Eventually, he explains, excessive sitters can even experience organ damage from the added compression as well.

According to Chiropractors, Standing Is Infinitely Easier on Your Back Than Sitting

Dr. Halulko states that there is overwhelming evidence—both anecdotally and scientifically—supporting the benefits to lower back health and overall health from using a standing workstation.

“The goal of a standing desk is to take the compressive forces off the back and body and then help engage and activate important muscles,” he says, stating that some of the most important muscles to our backs and bodies are our glute muscles which provide stability for the entire body when we stand.

Additionally, standing allows you to engage extra muscles that even the most posture-conscious sitter rarely squeezes into attention.

For example, “It is critical whenever standing to contract the glute muscles, propelling us more vertical and then engaging the core.”

Dr. Halulko states that he uses a wall-mounted computer screen, which allows him to work while standing.

It’s worth interjecting that our previous research found that you can sit in a way that engages your core muscles—it’s just that most of us don’t bother to do so.

Standing Desk Proponents Claim That Being Upright Has Additional Benefits

Dr. Kyrin Dunston, a board-certified OB-GYN with over 20 years of experience and author of Cracking the Bikini Code: 6 Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss Success states that correcting posture problems aren’t the only positive effect of standing.

“Standing desk claims that they improve health and help you live longer are valid,” she says. “They have been shown in studies to reduce the risk of weight gain and obesity, may lower blood sugar, reduce the risk of heart disease and improve low back pain, mood, energy, and productivity.”

While we’ve yet to receive a definitive answer on how many hours of standing can make up for stuffing our faces with sourdough and brie, it’s difficult to deny the outpouring of support standing receives.

Unless, of course, you listen to these guys...

New Research States That Sitting Isn’t a Standalone Problem

Exeter and University College London researchers have recently released a study that attempts to quell fears that sitting will kill you.

The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, looked at data from 5,000 participants over a 16 year period, and found that sitting for prolonged periods doesn’t increase the risk of an early death if you are otherwise physically active.

To come to this conclusion, researchers focused their study on a specific control group: civil servants in London regularly used public transportation for their commute.

This group spends almost twice as much time walking each day as the rest of the UK population, leading researchers to conclude that the benefits of regular exercise trump the risks of lengthy hours spent in a seated position.

What Does This Mean for You?

It’s simple: Exercise is important for your health, and no amount of standing at a desk will compensate for a lack of regular cardio and strength training.

With the complete range of research in mind, perhaps a more comprehensive stance on sitting versus standing would be to say that it isn’t so much sitting into itself that’s bad for you, but the lack of engaged muscles and improper posture that most of us fall victim to while resting on our bums.

(And, no, those posture-enhancing products won’t do the work for you.)

Along those lines, standing while working is a lot like sitting on a stability ball: The act of doing it isn’t inherently better. Instead, it’s that both of these positions force you to stabilize your body mass with engaged muscles.

Standing Desk Users Report a Reduction in Existing Back Pain

While standing desks aren’t a miracle stand-in for working out—and sitting isn’t automatically going to shorten your lifespan—there are still plenty of other benefits to assuming a vertical position.

Namely, that they can help relieve existing pain.

Matthew Bell, founder, and CEO of the boutique consulting firm Bell Interactive, wrote to share his positive experience with standing desks.

“When I was about 27 or 28, I started to suffer severe lower back pain. It was muscular, and it felt like my lower back was on fire at times.”

Matthew said that, despite being active and regularly working out with five to six-mile runs and strength training, he was unable to figure out what was causing his ongoing back pain.

“As it turned out, sitting all day at my desk caused cramping in my leg muscles, which contracted from the constant sitting position.” Matthew learned that tightening of the hamstrings and leg muscles pulls on the lower back, which can cause lower back pain.

“I made the switch to a standing desk, and the change in comfort at work was almost instantaneous.”

Along with adopting a new position during the day, Matthew added regular stretching into his routine. “Every hour or so, I would break from the standing desk to do some light stretching. Over time, my back pain disappeared entirely.”

Research backs up Matthew’s experience of decreased lower back pain, with several studies showing a reduction in discomfort just two to three weeks after making the switch.

Additionally, upper back and neck pain were also reported as reduced by those who started using standing desks—a study by the CDC reports a 54% decrease in just four weeks.

Office workers who make the switch to standing desks also report feeling more alert, engaged, and creative when standing as compared to sitting.

If those sound life benefits you’d like to experience, then know that there is, in fact, a right way to start standing up for work.

How to Ease Into Assuming the Correct Standing Position

“When recommending standing desk to patients and anyone, I always caution against a complete switch,” says Dr. Halulko. He warns that, “If you sit 95% of the day and then plan on standing 95% of the day or more, this can cause major back spasms and pain.”

Instead, Dr. Halulko suggests that you should aim for a gradual and defined transition from sitting to standing. His suggestion is to start standing 10 minutes each hour at first and then add 5 minutes each week.

Be aware that switching around your workstation isn’t just a matter or height, but that other ergonomic factors also need adjusting.

Standing desks only help if you make other adjustments, including altering the position of your computer screen and keyboard to ensure that your elbows remain tucked in tight while your forearms maintain a position that is horizontal to the floor.

Shea Stamper of Safertech, a tech wellness company in Newport Beach, CA, wrote in to say that their entire office recently received a standing desk makeover.

Shea states that the company’s transition was accompanied with some words of advice, namely for employees who were partial to wearing heels.

“According to our chiropractor, if you are going to stand in heels, then you might as well not do it at all since high heels throw off your posture to such an extent. Instead, those in heels are better off just sitting down.”

Those planning to stand for long hours were also advised to invest in a cushioned floor mat like those used by retail cashiers who spend long hours on their feet. The mats not only feel nicer than standing on the ground but help to reduce fatigued muscles.

How Much Should You Spend on a Standing Desk?

Since Matthew had such a positive experience, we wanted to ask which model of the standing desk he recommends. He endorsed Geek Desk ($649-$880), due to the convenience of being able to adjust the desk height with the push of a button.

That being said, you don’t need to drop hundreds just to elevate your workstation.

Related: Varidesk Review

Instructions for DIY standing desks that range from elegant to obvious-but-effective hacks are easily found with a simple Google search.

Lifehacker shares how to jerry rig a DIY standing desk by combining an Ikea end table and extra shelf (for keyboard), for a grand total of $20. Alternately, Brit & Co shares 10 slightly more elegant solutions.

There are also prefabricated risers that allow you to turn any desk into a standing desk by simply raising up your monitor.

And, in case you’re worried that pinching pennies will affect the possible benefits from a standing desk, Dr. Kyrin Dunston states that DIY versions are just fine.

“I actually made risers for my old desk and used this rig for a while,” she says. Dr. Dunston finally sprung for a new standing desk model from overstock that featured shelves and wheels on the bottom, since the flexibility and functionality made her life easier.

However, there’s no reason not to attempt a budget version before figuring out exactly what bells and whistles make a standing desk worth spending on.

Standing Desk Ergonomics

Just note that, for those attempting the DIY or budget-minded route, you don’t leave out the important calculation of where to set your keyboard—unless you want to develop neck pain for straining to type.

Bottom Line on Standing Up During the Workday?

Despite the media freak out that sitting will kill you turning out to be not so accurate, there are some pretty compelling reasons for some folks to try standing desks.

If you experience back or neck pain, muscle cramps, general fatigue, or struggle with a lack of alertness, consider giving an elevated workstation a shot.

Though, again, don’t feel the need to spring for something spendy right off the bat when risers and a lifted keyboard will do just fine as you acclimate to a different posture.

With that in mind, don’t swing for a standing desk simply out of fear that sitting will put you into an early grave.

Overwhelming evidence still stands that the best thing you can do for your long-term health is regular exercise.

So, if you hate the idea of standing, feel free to remain seated—just as long as you don’t skip out on breaking a sweat for the recommended 30 minutes a day.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.