The evidence that sitting for prolonged periods of time, and that a sedentary lifestyle in general is bad for you, is as close to conclusive as science can come. Sitting at your desk for periods of half an hour or more for most of the workday is linked to a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and even a higher risk of cancer—some of the top causes of preventable death in the world today. Unfortunately there is not enough research yet to say definitively just how long or in what pattern it is healthiest to get up from your desk throughout the day.
However, there is a growing body of credible research. And there are several fitness and health experts with opinions on the matter, plus a lot of anecdotal evidence. Here are some guidelines to help you find your sweet spot of time spent standing at your desk and moving around at work.
Why standing is a good alternative to sitting
Standing can be a good alternative to sitting at your desk not only for the longterm improvement in your overall health but also for your productivity. Unless you're ready for a treadmill desk, it's difficult to work while walking. But standing also provides a boost in circulation that can help stave off mid-afternoon fatigue and get you going in the morning. While it may not feel like you are getting exercise simply by standing at your desk, your body has to engage several important muscle groups to keep you upright.
When sitting, especially when your back is totally supported by a chair, your core muscles (which include both your back and abdominal muscles) lose strength, as do, obviously, the muscles throughout your legs. Not only do you burn slightly more calories while standing, but you keep these muscles naturally in better shape to support your posture.
Standing is not the only alternative to sitting, though. Simply taking a short walk across the room or to the bathroom counts as movement for your body. Your muscles engage, your circulation kicks up a notch and your body gets a “gravitational stimulus”. Even a quick jaunt to the watercooler is a reminder of gravity for your body that keeps your bones denser than sitting all day does.
Alternatively, if you can find a quick stretch routine that relieves tension wherever you tend to hold it most, standing up for just a few minutes to stretch every 20 minutes prevents your metabolism from going into “slow motion”.
Of course, at times you simply have to sit for longer than 20 minutes to finish a task. That’s the reality for most people at work. The trick is setting habits at work that encourage you to move as often as possible whenever you can. That way, when you absolutely have to sit for three hours straight to complete something, for example, it will feel like an exception not the norm for your body.
Whether moving looks like something as intense as going for a long walk at lunch or as casual as setting a timer and just standing up to stretch every 20 minutes, any movement makes a big difference to your body.
The drawbacks of standing at your desk
As both research and anecdotal accounts will show, however, excessive standing in one position can potentially cause pain in your back and legs, and varicose veins. (Especially standing in the same position for very extended periods of time or standing with poor posture.) Physical therapists advise never to “push through” any pain that appears while you are standing at your desk. Initially, of course, you may feel some discomfort as you adjust to standing instead of sitting while working.
At first it can be somewhat distracting to not be as comfortable as you might be while sitting, but if you give it some time and practice, eventually standing feels better for many people. However, any signal that registers as pain should be heeded, and you should either sit or change standing positions to avoid causing strain or injury.
So what does the research say?
The most credible research that has been done on just how long you should be standing and/or moving throughout the workday was co-commissioned by Public Health England and www.getbritainstanding.org. The study found that people should be standing at least two hours a day (not consecutively) and be working towards standing for a total of four hours, or half your work day. As mentioned above, prolonged standing in a static position can also be hard on your body, so while some of us may be comfortable standing for an hour or more at a time, others may want to break up the standing time with sitting and walking.
Put it in action
Here are a few examples of how you might put all this information into action in a way that truly works for you without interfering with what you need to get done day-to-day.
As we mentioned in our post on productivity, one of the most effective ways to manage your tasks and time can be breaking them up in blocks. You might like the Pomodoro Technique (25 minute blocks of concentration with five minute blocks of break) or you might want to find your own ideal amount of focus/break time.
Other researchers have said that the optimal focus time is 52 minutes of focus with 17 minutes of break. Whatever actually works for you, make sure you incorporate standing or walking in there as often as is feasible without breaking your concentration too much. You could modify the pomodoro timer to be a 20-minute block of concentration interspersed with a 3-minute break where you get up and stretch, get water or go to the bathroom.
Or, if you prefer to stand while working, you could see how many “Pomodoro” blocks you can stand for and then use your break to sit and look at Facebook…I mean…watch Ted Talks. If you are only comfortable standing for one pomodoro block at a time, you could use your break to move around the office (get water or a snack), sit for the next block, then stand again. The key is experimenting and seeing what supports both your health and productivity.
Another trick, which we previously talked about in our e-book on creating the best workplace, is to be your own choice architect. Choice architecture is the idea that whichever choice is most convenient is the one that will be made, meaning that you should make the healthiest choices the most convenient for yourself (or your employees).
If you frequently drink water (or tea or whatever), it may seem counterintuitive, but you shouldn’t get yourself a big water bottle to keep at your desk. Instead, keep a small bottle at your desk and keep your watercooler, snacks and even your stapler, or anything else you might frequently reach for, somewhere else in the office. This will force you to get up and move, even if only for 30 seconds. It’s incredible, though, what 30 seconds of movement does for your muscles, bones, circulation and mind.
An adjustable height desk is worth it for everyone
Even if you don’t see standing while working as being “your thing”, or if it continues to be uncomfortable for you after a couple weeks of trying it out, it is probably still beneficial for you to have an adjustable height standing desk. The benefits of having the option to stand while working, even if you only decide to do so a few times a week, can help you feel that you have autonomy over your workspace and that you’re working toward the goal of being healthier at work.
If you don’t give yourself the option, you definitely won’t take advantage of it. At times you may just want to stand for ten minutes when you feel sleepy but need to keep working. Either way, allowing yourself the possibility is a great start, even if you don’t use it as much as you think you “should”.
The key to sitting less and being healthier is small changes, for most of us. Those of us who have been stacking crates on our desks to create makeshift standing desks for years may be ready for the big leap to a treadmill desk or standing for most of the workday. But most of us are accustomed to sitting at a desk while we work, and a healthy ratio of sitting versus movement will not look the same for everyone.
It comes down to being aware of the current research, finding your own rhythm and routine that works, taking small steps towards making it stick, and most of all giving yourself permission to both sit down when you feel tired and get up from your desk as often as is feasible. Just as with diet and exercise, pushing yourself towards your goal in small increments has a higher success rate than trying make a radical change all at once or getting really down on yourself if you don’t reach your goal as quickly as you would like.
Being healthy at work is an individual journey so we always like to hear what turned out to work best for you. Shoot us an email or comment on Facebook or below with your story of when and why you stand while working. We'd love to hear it and you might help someone else be healthier, too!
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