New research, published in the journal Applied Ergonomics, reviews the health benefits of sit-stand desks.
A recent study found that excessive sitting may be responsible for over 430,000 deaths. Sitting down for too long can interfere with the body's ability to metabolize fat and regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Some studies have suggested that simply standing, rather than sitting down, could help counteract some of these adverse effects.
Other studies suggested that sit-stand desks, specifically, prompt people to move more and consequently burn more calories. Many people believe that this innovative type of furniture, which most modern offices now have, can help with weight loss.
But a new review of existing studies challenges these views. April Chambers, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, led a scoping review of 53 studies that examined the benefits of sit-stand desks.
The lead researcher explains the motivation for the review, saying, "There has been a great deal of scientific research about sit-stand desks in the past few years, but we have only scratched the surface of this topic."
She adds, "With my background in occupational injury prevention, I wanted to gather what we know so far and figure out the next steps for how can we use these desks to better benefit people in the workplace."
Sit-stand desks do not aid weight loss
Of the 53 studies included in the review, 47 were experimental trials. Overall, the studies examined between six and 231 study participants for a follow-up period of up to a year.
Chambers examined the effects of sit-stand desks across six parameters: "behavior (for example, time sitting and standing), physiological, work performance, psychological, discomfort, and posture."
"The study found only minimal impacts on any of [the six parameters], the strongest being changes in behavior and discomfort," reports study co-author Nancy A. Baker, who is an associate professor of occupational therapy at Tufts University in Medford, MA.
In other words, people who used sit-stand desks did indeed spend less time sitting and more time standing than those who used regular desks.
Also, sit-stand desk users reported feeling more comfortable at work. On the flipside, however, sit-stand desks were "least (...) effective for productivity. "
In terms of the physiological effects, the reviewers report that sit-stand desks had no significant impact on obesity — even though the majority of the studies included in the review focused precisely on these effects.
The review did register some minor beneficial effects of sit-stand desks, but the researchers highlight the fact that losing weight was not one of them.
"There are health benefits to using sit-stand desks, such as a small decrease in blood pressure or low back pain relief, but people simply are not yet burning enough calories to lose weight with these devices."
However, the lead researcher also notes that we should not discount sit-stand desks altogether as a result of these findings.
"Though these are mild benefits, certain populations might benefit greatly from even a small change in their health," she says.
She continues, "In order to achieve positive outcomes with sit-stand desks, we need a better understanding of how to properly use them; like any other tool, you have to use it correctly to get the full benefits out of it."
Specifically, more research is needed on workplace set-up and dosage, suggests Chambers. "I think proper usage will differ from person to person, and as we gather more research, we will be better able to suggest dosage for a variety of workers."