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Are Standing Desks Secretly Terrible?

Topics: Work Culture
standing desks

A lot of workers love their active workstations. But, are standing desks really all they’re cracked up to be?

Active workstations, like standing desks, bicycle desks, or treadmills in the office, have been credited with helping workers achieve all kinds of benefits. The idea is that they aid in improved posture, activity levels and overall health.

Standing desks, and other similar options, are even said to help relieve stress and improve general well-being. However, researchers are beginning to discover that these claims might be overblown. In fact, there could actually be a downside to standing at work.

Standing Desks Are Something of a Trade-Off

Researchers from Finland’s University of Jyvaskyla wanted to determine how standing desks and active workstations really impact workers. They decided to focus their attention on one large software company in Finland. Researchers indicated that this choice was based, in part, on the fact that the tech industry is associated with sedentary work. Through their research, they sought to determine how physical alertness, stress and musculoskeletal strain were impacted by the use of active workstations.

They found that the benefits weren’t quite as impressive as the marketing sometimes suggests. There were some benefits, but there were also a few trade-offs. For example, researchers did find a decrease in musculoskeletal strain in the neck and shoulders. However, stress and strain was increased in the legs and feet.

Similarly, the team also noted that physical improvements were also offset by other results. A modest improvement to heart rate, by 4.2 beats per minute on average, led to an extra 6.1 kilocalories burned per hour. However, researchers noted that standing for long periods of time leads to an increased risk of varicose veins and back problems.

“The findings of this study suggest that the usage of standing instead of sitting workstations results in only modest promotions of physical activity,” the team reported, according to Science Daily. Furthermore, researchers found that the shift to active options, “does not have an effect on mental alertness.”

Standing Desks May Cause Workers to Sit More in the Evenings

Researchers from Loughborough University in the U.K. studied the behavioral impact of standing desks a couple of years back. The team used fitness trackers to examine how standing desks shifted activity levels.

They found that people tended to sit more after work when they used standing desks during the day. They dubbed this the compensation effect. Although folks stood more during the day, they were negating some of the benefits of this by sitting more in the evenings.

The compensation effect seems to make a real impact. Researchers found that standing desks didn’t make all that much difference in workers’ activity levels. Subjects only sat for an average of 44 minutes less each day when their entire day was taken into account.

Active Workstations Aren’t All Bad

Standing desks and other options like bicycle desks and treadmills at work may not have as many inherent benefits as marketers might like. Still, some workers really enjoy having them and have determined that they are quite useful to them personally.

“For the eight weeks I used that desk, I felt like a million bucks,” wrote Chris Spurlock at HuffPost. “Sure, I got some funny looks from my coworkers, but overall it was an amazing experience. Not only was I feeling healthier and more energized, but it gave me an opportunity to meet new people and tell them about the dangers of sitting all day.

The health costs, both physical and mental, of sitting too much are real. That’s why sitting has been dubbed the new smoking.

Employers ought to afford individual workers the opportunity to pursue workstation options that they find the most appealing, even if the benefits are only marginal. Additionally, it’s important that workers and employers understand that these tools are limited in the scope of what they can accomplish. Regular exercise, and taking time away from the office, are still just as important as ever.

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