It's the sigh of relief heard 'round the world, the happy news that sitting won't kill you. As Jenn put it: Stop worrying about sitting. Sitting is not the new smoking. It's not even the new chewing gum. Jenn explains the real problem:
But what is harmful to our health? Lack of movement. Oftentimes, that goes hand-in-hand with too much sitting. But the point is that simply taking standing breaks throughout the day is not going to protect your health. Nor will that lovely and expensive standing desk. It may feel good as a means to stretch your back, but it's not going to make you any healthier.
But before you sit down and sneer at all the jerks who spent all that money on their expensive standing desks, let's look at what's going on here.
1. It's a British study, and they already move twice as much as Americans.
It's also just one study of hundreds that have looked at the standing vs. sitting question, with most of the others finding a real benefit. Outliers happen. But the fact is, as Kaid Benfield demonstrates in this article at NRDC Switchboard, Americans spend far more time sitting on their rear ends in their cars than anyone else in the world. The British are already moving as they walk or bike to work, or to their train stations, twice as much as Americans do. So the relative impact of the time they spend in their seats is going to be a lot less. In fact, among the key messages of the study, the authors note that "there might be a "higher than average daily activity in this cohort" they studied and "Previously reported relationships between sitting time and health outcomes may be due in part to low total daily energy expenditure." Like you find in America.
2. Sitting never was the new smoking.
Or at least, the standing desk was never the answer. This line was first used in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article by Nilofer Merchant, a Silicon Valley corporate strategist. (She actually said "Sitting is the smoking of our generation.") In it she notes that the standing desk was not the answer:
...over the last couple of years, we saw the mainstreaming of the standing desk. Which, certainly, is a step forward. But even that, while it gets you off your duff, won’t help you get real exercise.
The fact is that the benefits of standing desks were seriously overhyped by the media, and a lot of people never thought that adjustable sit/stand desks were a good solution to the problem. And there have been doubts about them all along; see Kimi's post of a year ago asking Is standing really better than sitting at the office?
3. Even the inventors of the modern standing desk didn't think it was actually about standing.
As designer Robert Propst of Herman Miller found when using his new Action Office back in the early '60s, as described by Nikil Saval,
Propst found himself constantly in motion, moving from one working area to another, standing to sitting. All this activity made him feel more productive, alert, vital.
And they still feel this way; I while back I asked Mark Schurman of Herman Miller why they hadn't introduced a sitting/standing adjustable desk. (They have since.)
As a trend the sit/stand issue has obviously picked up momentum in recent years, but in some ways it’s ironic as the primary concern (sedentary work styles) has also been shifting, with the miniaturization and mobility of technology, coupled with flatter organizations and more emphasis on collaboration, increasingly leading knowledge workers to spend less time at a personal workstation.
The fact of the matter is, different furniture, often in different places, is often more desirable than an adjustable desk and standing in one place. A comfy lounge chair for reading a report or a book; a quiet, private small room for a phone call; a big table for meeting; a desk for using a notebook computer. That's why I have what I call an Active Office — I move from one place to another depending on what I am doing and how I feel. Because as Herman Miller architect and designer George Nelson said, "The Lord never meant a man to be immobilized in one position."
As one of the authors of the U.K. study that found no benefits to standing desk notes in a quote from an article with an unrepeatable title, that sounds much like Nelson of 50 years ago,
"Our study overturns current thinking on the health risks of sitting and indicates that the problem lies in the absence of movement rather than the time spent sitting itself,” study author Melvyn Hillsdon of the University of Exeter said in a statement. “Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing."
This is why I have been complaining for years about adjustable standing desks; they fix you in one spot when you should be moving. From Herman Miller's days to my own desk, the shape is different, wider and shallower, so that you move from side to side instead of reaching for things.
4. There are lots of other benefits to standing desks.
The fact is that it is easier to move when you're already standing. When I want to collect my thoughts I don't have to push away from my desk and stand up; I just walk up and down the hall and think. However when I am sitting in my chair, I'm much more likely to remain sitting in my chair.
In office situations, it can promote interaction and communication; checking with my MNN associates working at standing desks at HQ in Atlanta, my editor concurs that "you're less isolated" when you can see your neighbors and talk to them.
People who use standing desks often claim to be more alert and sharper; it's hard to doze off standing up. And there's another benefit: standing takes energy, as much as 50 calories per hour. That adds up to 30,000 calories per year, about eight pounds of fat. And do you feel a bit sluggish after a big lunch? Another British study found that "On standing days, the volunteers' blood glucose levels went back to normal much more quickly after eating a meal compared to on the days when volunteers sat."
5. In the end it doesn't matter; you probably won't have a desk anyway.
The office is changing, according to Mark Schurman of Herman Miller, in ways that make standing desks irrelevant:
Organizations are using fewer, smaller assigned workstations, with more ‘free address’ spaces, and a larger mix of open collaborative areas, conference rooms of all sizes, etc. Those free address stations (and even conference/collaborative areas) still benefit from at least some standing options, which is what we do Herman Miller’s own interiors, and that too is a trend we see among customers. However more of those are simply fixed standing height, which is obviously less costly than height adjustable.
So relax. Have a seat.
It will be a lot healthier and better for you and everyone if you bike to work, go for a stroll or have a walking meeting. I, for one, am glad that all the standing desk hype is dying down; it's not one or the other but part of a balanced mix of work and life. Do whatever makes you feel better while you still have an option.