Thinking on their feet: the standing desk revolution
How many hours a day do you spend sitting down? If you’re on your feet for the majority of your working day then perhaps you enjoy some (sitting) down time. However is our increased use of computers and digital technology in medical research and the work place encouraging an increasingly sedentary working life? Isabel Baker investigates.
Standing while you work turns out to be an, erm, long-standing tradition. Famous historical figures including Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens all worked at standing desks, and of course researchers at the lab bench or in the clinic are used to spending hours on their feet.
Sedentary behaviour has been recognised as a public health issue only in the past 10 years, and recent research has suggested that standing is a healthier alternative to long periods of sitting1,2.
But are standing desks the answer? Since featuring Professor Ian Deary’s standing desk in the spring 2014 issue of Network magazine (also featured on the blog), I tracked down some other MRC researchers who have made the switch from chair to feet.
The makeshift standing desk revolution has recently taken Professor Marcus Munafò’s Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group by storm. Professor of Biological Psychology and a programme lead in the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, Marcus says he was introduced to the idea by a colleague who had used one after a back injury but later decided to keep it. “I was sceptical at first, but after I heard a couple of other colleagues had started using them I decided to try it myself.”
“I haven’t looked back since – I find that I’m much more focused on my work, and my productivity has increased. Everyone asks if it’s tiring, but actually you get used to standing very quickly, and of course it’s rare that I stand for a whole day, since my day is usually broken up with meetings and so on.”
Four researchers in Marcus’ group have also tried out standing while they work. Research Assistant Emma Anderson, says: “I was feeling generally sluggish with my sedentary lifestyle. I still have a normal desk for some of my work, but I have to stand to use my computer (which I use for most of my office time). It’s only been a few days now, but I do feel more productive. I’ve also started avoiding the lift!”
PhD student Michael Dalili had heard about the benefits of standing desks and decided to try one out after experiencing backache. “After a couple of weeks I’m satisfied with my desk. It makes me pay attention to my posture much more, something I seldom do when seated. It does take some adjustment, but it helps me to concentrate more on my work ― wasting time standing up is less appealing.”
Meg Fluharty, Research Assistant, explains: “I had honestly expected the standing desk to last one day, if that. However, I’ve yet to sit back down (at my desk, at least!) over a month later. I thought it would feel awkward, but after a few minutes it felt completely natural and is much better than slouching in a chair for eight hours a day. I have more energy throughout the day which has helped me to be more productive.”
Olivia Maynard, Research Associate says she was sceptical; her legs and feet hurt after her first week of standing, and she felt tired. “The key was to persevere, and five months later, my legs and feet don’t hurt and I feel much more energised at the end of the day. It’s obviously not advisable to stand stock still all day, so I shift my weight from foot to foot, and tend to dance to the music on my headphones when my office mates aren’t there.”
Outside of Bristol, Katie Lewis, PhD student at the Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences at Cardiff University, has a standing desk for rather different reasons: “I am quite short (4’11”) and so I was having trouble getting everything at my desk adjusted to the right height, particularly the chair, and experiencing a lot of back ache as a result. I know a few people working in computer science who use standing desks – it’s been gaining popularity in that industry for a while – so I thought I’d give it a go.”
Where’s the evidence?
So, our little group of researchers is happy, but is there any evidence to back up using a standing desk?
Due to the wide variety of study designs, measures and findings, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the relationships between sedentary behaviour and health outcomes3-5. However I asked Professor Ulf Ekelund of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, who is affiliated with the MRC Epidemiology Unit at University of Cambridge. One of his areas of research is the role of physical activity and sedentary behaviour for preventing non-communicable diseases. He’s less convinced about the standing desk revolution.
“I think promoting physical activity and especially moderate and vigorous intensity activity, rather than reducing sitting, is more important for various health outcomes”, explains Ulf.
“However, given the high prevalence of sitting time in modern societies, less time spent sitting and more time spent on the feet should be promoted. To put this simply: stand rather than sit, walk rather than stand and run rather than walk!”
*Image copyright belongs to the image subject.
- Global physical activity levels: surveillance progress, pitfalls, and prospects – The Lancet, 2012
- Standing and mortality in a prospective cohort of Canadian adults – Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2014
- Reconsidering the sedentary behaviour paradigm – PloS One, 2014
- Occupational Sitting and Health Risks – American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2010
- Reducing office workers’ sitting time: rationale and study design for the Stand Up Victoria cluster randomized trial – BMC Public Health, 2013