“Prolonged sitting could kill you!” This and similar headlines have featured in abundance on news sites in recent months, including Medical News Today. Since the majority of Americans’ sitting time is spent at work, employees are increasingly turning to sit-stand desks as a way of reducing sedentary behavior and preventing the related health risks. But do they work? We put one to the test.

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Americans spend around 7.5 hours a day sitting at work. Can sit-stand desks help reduce the associated health risks?

On average, Americans spend up to 13 hours a day sitting, with around 7.5 hours spent sitting at work.

These numbers are unlikely to surprise those of you who work at a desk all day. Though we know we should take regular breaks, get up and move around, the demands and distractions of work often push such knowledge to the back of the mind.

As a result, we spend the majority of the work day firmly planted in our chairs, and at times, even lunch fails to draw us away from our desks.

But as you are probably well aware, such behavior is not healthy.

In January 2015, MNT reported on a study that suggested prolonged sitting can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even death, regardless of whether one exercises regularly.

A more recent study further supported the link between prolonged sitting and poor health, suggesting that sitting for more than 3 hours a day is responsible for more than 430,000 deaths.

While the obvious solution to reduce the risk of what many health professionals are calling “sitting disease” is to move more, this can prove challenging in the workplace. A possible solution? Sit-stand desks.

Sit-stand desks are simply desks that can be adjusted to enable employees to work while sitting down or standing up.

The idea of standing desks is certainly not new, with the workstations dating back centuries. It is believed that Leonardo Da Vinci used a standing desk while painting the infamous Mona Lisa, while Thomas Jefferson is believed to have been one of the first people to use a height-adjustable standing desk.

In recent years, standing workstations have regained popularity, largely due to an increased focus on the negative health implications of prolonged sitting.

And it seems that many Americans are willing to sit less and stand more during the work day, with a 2010 poll from market research firm Ipsos revealing that 67% of full-time employees surveyed wished their employers offered sit-stand workstations.

But do these desks really encourage us to stand more, helping to reduce the potential health risks of sedentary behavior?

One of the most popular manufacturers of sit-stand desks – Varidesk – kindly sent MNT one of their offerings to test, and I was the lucky candidate.

Everyone here at the MNT office will admit they should get up and move around more during the working day, so I was excited about receiving a sit-stand desk, in the hope that it would encourage just that.

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The Varidesk Pro Plus 36 is a two-tiered, height-adjustable workstation with a spring-assisted lift mechanism.
Image credit: Varidesk

The workstation I tested is Varidesk’s Pro Plus 36. Priced at $395, the desk consists of a spring-assisted lift mechanism that enables the user to adjust it to the height required.

The Pro Plus 36 can hold up to 35 Ibs (15.8 kg) and is two-tiered, making it a good option for those with dual monitors, still leaving enough space for a keyboard and mouse.

One thing to note is that the desk is not a full workstation in itself; it is designed to sit on top of an existing desk, which makes it ideal for offices with built-in workstations.

The desk could not be easier to set up. It is simply a case of removing it from the box and placing it where required. After doing just that, I was ready to embark on a 2-week sit-stand challenge.

If you’re used to sitting down for the majority of the work day, suddenly standing for hours can take its toll.

Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way, attempting to stand from 9-5 on the first use of the Pro Plus 36.

By the end of the day, my feet were crying out for help, and it was a relief to get home, sit down and take the weight off.

The next day, I decided to take a more sensible approach; I sat for the first 2 hours, stood for 30 minutes, sat for a further 2 hours, and so on. In total, I stood for around 2 hours of the working day. I found this much more manageable.

Varidesk recommend a similar technique, suggesting that a user should raise and lower their desks gradually for 1 month to reach a reasonable standing-time goal. Once this goal is reached, they recommend increasing standing time gradually over the next 3-4 months.

In terms of comfort, I found the transition to a sit-stand desk challenging. Being a notorious sloucher when sitting down, I found myself unconsciously leaning on the desk while working when standing up, which resulted in back pain.

This does not reflect the desk itself, but rather the importance of adopting a good posture both when sitting and standing.

According to the Mayo Clinic, when sitting at your desk, your body should be centered in front of your monitor and keyboard. You should sit up straight, and your thighs should be horizontal with your knees and at the same level as your hips. Your forearms should be level or slightly tilted up.

When standing, you should stand upright with your feet flat on the floor, and your elbows should be level with your wrist. The top of your monitor should be at or just below eye level.

An anti-fatigue mat may help with the transition to a standing desk. This can offer support to the feet and alleviate the pressure of standing on the back, legs and shoulders.

Some studies have suggested that sit-stand desks can increase productivity. Earlier this year, for example, MNT reported on research that found standing desks improved the cognitive function of students.

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Studies have suggested standing can boost productivity.

Varidesk themselves claim that, based on existing research, standing desks can increase productivity, energy levels and alertness by increasing the amount of oxygen that is sent to the brain.

However, a study published online in Preventive Medicine Reports last December identified no change in productivity for call center workers who used a standing desk, compared with those who used a conventional desk.

When it came to my experience with the sit-stand desk, I found it harder to concentrate when standing up, distracted by my aching feet and attempts to maintain a correct posture.

However, the desk did become less distracting as time went on, so I believe it is just a matter of getting accustomed to both standing and working at the same time.

Whether standing while you work raises productivity, however, remains an issue of debate.

The potential health risks of prolonged sitting are well documented. These include increased risks of obesity, diabetes, heart disease cancer and preterm death. So, can sit-stand desks reduce the likelihood of developing such conditions?

Unfortunately, this question cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” as studies on the subject are conflicting.

A 2013 study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine found that, compared with employees who used conventional desks, those who used standing desks experienced increased calorie expenditure, burning an average of 174 calories over one afternoon of standing.

In August 2015, a study by researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia suggested that replacing 2 hours of sitting with standing each day may have metabolic benefits.

The study – involving more than 780 men and women – found that sitting for an extra 2 hours daily was associated with improvement in blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

“Extra standing time was […] associated with higher average levels of the good type of cholesterol known as HDL, and replacing 2 hours a day of sitting time with stepping was associated with about an 11% lower average BMI [body mass index] and a 7.5 cm smaller average waist circumference,” says study leader Dr. Genevieve Healy, of Queensland’s School of Public Health.

And last month, a study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine found that a sit-stand desk helped alleviate chronic low back pain for employees.

However, a Cochrane review also emerged last month that claimed the benefits of sit-stand workstations are “uncertain.”

The review – which analyzed 20 studies involving 2,180 participants – found very low- or low-quality evidence that employees who used sit-stand desks sat between 30 minutes to 2 hours less than those who used sit-only desks.

Furthermore, the researchers concluded that “sit-stand desks did not have a considerable effect on work performance, musculoskeletal symptoms or sick leave,” adding:

It remains unclear if standing can repair the harms of sitting because there is hardly any extra energy expenditure.”

It goes without saying that it is better for health to be physically active than sedentary, but simply standing at a desk is not the most strenuous task. So how does it benefit health?

It is true that we do burn a few more calories when we stand, because it increases our heart rate. However, many health professionals say the calorie burn is not enough to be beneficial.

“The calorie burn difference between standing and sitting is so small, it probably won’t make much difference in terms of weight loss,” Dr. I-min Lee, an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, told The Boston Globe in 2014.

What is more, standing for long periods can be harmful, particularly if an individual is overweight. It can put strain on the back and joints, as well as increase the risk of varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis and many other cardiovascular problems.

This begs the question: if both sitting and standing for long periods are harmful to health, what can we do to reduce the associated risks?

The key is movement. Just standing at a desk is unlikely to counteract the harms of sitting, but moving around while doing so could. Simply shifting from one foot to the other regularly or stretching frequently can help.

It is also important to regularly switch between sitting and standing throughout the working day. Speaking to U.S News & World Report last year, Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environment Analysis at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, explained:

If what you’re doing is replacing sitting with standing, you’re not actually doing your body any favors. In fact, you’re introducing a whole variety of new risk factors.

If you go from sitting to standing and vice versa frequently throughout the day [… ] that completely eradicates any of the supposed risk factors associated with sitting, or indeed with standing.”

One thing I have found while using the sit-stand desk is that, while standing, I can’t help but move more, whether it’s just to stroll around the office or – much to the dismay of my colleagues – dance along to the office radio.

While the debate about whether sit-stand workstations are beneficial to health is set to continue, I can say firsthand that the desk has certainly increased my activity and made me feel more energetic during the working day, and that has to be positive.

As long as you use the workstation correctly, regularly alternate between sitting and standing, and remember to move, I believe a sit-stand desk is a valuable addition to any office.