If Sitting Is ‘Worse Than Smoking’ Then Is It Practical To Live A Standing Lifestyle?

At RISING we like to think we practice what we preach, so when the oft-repeated ‘sitting is the new smoking’ mantra took hold, we were quietly confident it didn’t apply to us. Surely taking the stairs, getting off the bus a stop early, regular screen breaks and a moderately well-used gym membership were activity enough? Apparently not. Recent research has found it’s the amount of time we spend sedentary, as opposed to how little exercise we do, that has the most detrimental effect on our health. The study, part of a Public Health England report says prolonged sitting is a totally separate problem from being inactive. So you may be getting your recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week, but if you have a sedentary job it’s still not going to be enough. Of course there are plenty of careers that don’t involve being chained to a computer all day, but seeing as putting RISING together isn’t one of them, we did the next best thing and got a standing desk.

‘People who sit for eight hours a day may double their risk of heart disease’

First, Ditch The Chair

So, why stand instead of sit? Firstly, it shows a massive improvement in the lower back pain that many office workers complain about – a 32% improvement, according to a study trialling standing desks like the one we’ve just got. But the pros of being on your feet for regular intervals go way beyond posture. According to the aforementioned Public Health England report we can spend up to 60% of our waking hours on our backsides and the campaign Get Britain Standing confirms those who sit for more than eight hours a day double their risk of heart disease compared to those who sit for four hours or less. Giving up your chair can also contribute to weight loss. Not only does standing burn 50 calories more per hour than sitting, but after just 90 minutes of sitting your metabolism slows down significantly. So over the course of a year you could shift up to 2.5kg just by standing for an extra 30 minutes a day. Plus, being on your feet enables you to better metabolise sugar, helping to combat diabetes and even some forms of cancer. Not very good PR for chair manufacturers.

The Standing Hardware

There are a variety of standing desks on the market but RISING is testing a Varidesk Pro Plus 36. At £365, it’s about four times the cost of the traditional desk we’re putting it on, but when it arrives we can see why. It’s a well-constructed, hefty bit of kit which weighs in at 16kg and is height-adjustable. It sits on top of your normal desk, with your computer and keyboard or laptop on top.

There’s plenty of room for speakers, external drives and humorous mugs, and you adjust the height to best suit you whether standing, sitting or perching on a stool. When in standing mode the same ergonomic recommendations for computer screens apply as when sitting, with the screen at eye-level and 50-71cm away from your face, with a 90° bend in your arms. The Varidesk is easy to set up and the Velcro ties included stop various cables getting in the way, particularly when returning it back to sitting mode. The recommendations for sitting-to-standing ratios are 2:1 (one hour standing to every two sitting) but we decide to go for broke and stand until we feel like we need to sit down.

The attention from passing colleagues can take a bit of getting used to’

The Office Meerkat

First of all be warned that if, like us, you’re the only one in your workplace with a standing desk, looming over your workmates can be a bit disconcerting. Once we get over the self-consciousness, we find it surprisingly easy to adapt to standing on the job. Typing takes a bit of getting used to, as does the attention from passing colleagues, but for the first couple of hours at least, no aches and pains appear. Pauses in our workflow, such as reading something off-screen or taking a phone call, make us naturally adjust our posture and move around, whereas if we were sitting the only movement would have been from the waist up. And we feel more inclined to walk over to a colleague to ask a question as opposed to using phone or email.

Some careers that involve standing for long periods of time are linked with an increased likelihood of varicose veins or a hardening of the arteries. Because of this we opt to sit at the first sign of fatigue, which in our case is around the three-hour and half hour mark – almost in time for lunch. Initially, over the first few days and weeks, slight niggles and pains do make themselves known, although we are doing a lot of running too. [Another RISING Varidesk user experienced an initial tightness in his back muscles, which gradually disappeared, ED]. We also experienced occasional twinges in our feet, and numbness in our toes.

We’re back up again for a couple of hours in the afternoon, although we break it up with periods of sitting when we find ourselves leaning on the desk rather than standing at it. But by the time we put the desk down at the end of the day, we can honestly say that due to constantly shifting our weight around throughout the day, our legs just don’t feel tired in the same way as they do, say, the day after a long run.

Is There A Standing Downside?

We’re quickly converts – but before you throw all your chairs in a skip, there have been some dissenting voices. A 2014 study concluded that prolonged standing at work had a myriad of potentially unhealthy effects, including lower-back and leg pain, cardiovascular problems, fatigue and discomfort. Also, a paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found no incidence of diabetes or circulatory problems in people who sat down for a living, who didn’t have the conditions already. So, the science is conflicted. The voice of reason comes from Cornell University, whose experts recommend mixing it up: in every 20 minute period you should be standing for eight minutes and moving for two. You can sit at your computer for the rest. Moderation, it would seem, is key.

‘At a standing desk we seemed to have a clearer sense of clarity and thought’

Anecdotally many workers say standing while working helps get their creative juices flowing and RISING’s experience with a standing desk supports that. We seemed to have a clearer sense of clarity and thought – maybe because our chest was more open and our breathing deeper, getting more oxygen to the brain. Concentration levels have also improved, and being more visible to the rest of the office makes you less likely to be distracted by social media. Oh, and in case you’re thinking standing desks have been dreamt up by millennial Danes, then you should know that Winston Churchill famously worked at a standing desk, and his output has certainly stood the test of time…

Standing more also makes you aware of your posture – you realise when you’re slouching, and adjust accordingly, so that over time things improve. There’s another sweet physical side-effect too. Because standing activates the deep muscles of your core, we’re finding that stability exercises are gradually becoming easier to do in the gym, without any extra effort. So, whatever the long-term health benefits, RISING can confirm that standing at work has short-term gains. Now, on your feet!

WHAT NEXT? You don’t need a standing desk to log more productive time on your feet. Try standing when making phone calls, have ‘walk and talk’ meetings, offer to do coffee runs to the kitchen for your colleagues, and make sure you get in a couple of water-cooler moments throughout the day. All this will help you work towards Cornell University’s advice: for every 20 minutes of work, stand for eight and move for two.