Do I Really Need a Standing Desk?

The benefits to your health may come with some serious drawbacks.

Feb 8 2018, 5:00pm

Helen King/Getty Images

Back in the spring of 2011, I joined the staff of Men’s Health magazine as a reporter.

I’d come to the magazine after writing for a newspaper in Washington DC, and the transition from an old-school DC newsroom to Men’s Health’s offices in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, was jarring for a number of reasons—among them the fact that most of my new colleagues worked at standing desks.

These were a new concept for me, and I asked around. It turned out that a few months before I’d arrived, Men’s Health had run a story about the dangers of sitting down all day.

That story (and many others published around that time) was based primarily on research from Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center—research that found the more time people spend on their butts, the greater their risks for heart disease, cancer, and death from all causes. Even if you exercise regularly, sitting all day still endangers your health, more research suggested.

The case against all-day sitting was so compelling that many of the magazine’s staffers had swapped their old desks for stand-up models, and soon I was one of them. While I didn’t spend every minute on my feet—I’d sit down during meetings, or to eat lunch—at least 60 percent of my work day was spent standing in front of my computer.

I don’t remember exactly when the muscle cramps started. It may have been during that first year of standing, or a couple years later. But at some point, I started waking up in the middle of the night with terrible charley horses in my lower-legs. The cramping always attacked the muscles running along the tops of my shins, and I’d have get out of bed and walk back and forth to make the pain and cramping subside.

I asked my doctor what I could do to stop them, and she recommended some diet changes—eating more kale and bananas. It didn’t occur to me that standing all day could be causing my leg cramps—until I turned up some of the research highlighting the risks of “stationary standing.”

One study found standing all day can lead to both nocturnal leg cramps and varicose veins. Another scarier study from Toronto’s Institute for Work and Health found that, compared to sitting during the day, standing roughly doubles a person’s risk for heart disease.

How could standing be worse than sitting? “When you stand for long periods of time, blood tends to pool in your legs, which leads to both increased pressure in your veins to pump blood back to the heart, and also to reductions in circulating blood plasma volume,” says Peter M. Smith, first author of that study and a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Both the increase venous pressure and reduced plasma volume can have impacts on the cardiovascular system when they are prolonged over long periods of time.”

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I’d spent a good few years working on my feet in order to dodge the dangers of too much chair time. So, hearing about Smith’s research, you can probably guess my reaction: You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.

“You know, this whole thing from day one . . . it’s just fascinating to see the papers we wrote, as well as the work of others, and to see what people did with the findings,” says Tim Church, a professor at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

Church authored some of the papers that kicked off the whole “your couch is killing you” line of media coverage. And after speaking with him, it’s clear that by “fascinating” he really means something closer to “infuriating.” “When you’re sitting, you’re not moving, and not moving is what’s bad for you,” he says.

He says that, while the dangers of too much sitting were called out in his research, most of what he and his colleagues wrote about outlined the risks associated with “physical inactivity.” While standing up “fires some more muscles” than sitting down, “the idea that you can just stand still and lose weight or get healthier—we never said that, and I don’t think there’s much evidence to support that,” he says.

One just-published study from the Mayo Clinic found standing may burn 0.15 more calories per minute than sitting—an increase that could theoretically lead to significant weight loss over time. But that study did not look for actual weight-loss benefits among real-world people who switched from sitting to standing desks.

So what's the answer? Treadmill desks for everyone? Church says that’s a healthier option, but probably not a realistic one. “In a perfect world, you’re getting up every 45 minutes and going for a short walk,” Church says.

Those extended periods of inactivity—especially ones two hours or longer—are what seem to be really terrible for our health. Breaking those up with brief periods of movement—walking to the bathroom, or to the break room for water—can offset many of the risks. “This is a minimum prescription for health, not to get fit or lose weight,” Church adds.

For those who’ve already made the move to a standing desk, he says it’s unclear how often you’d have to walk around to counteract any health drawbacks. But taking regular walking breaks is still a good idea. “At a minimum for disease prevention, you want to take 7,000 steps a day—and 3,000 of those should be a little bit faster,” he says.

“If you are on your feet and moving around, you don’t get the same [blood] pooling as when you stand still,” Smith adds.

Based on their advice, I switched from a standing-only desk to a setup that allows me to sit or stand. Usually I sit. I also downloaded an app that lets out a wolf howl every 45 minutes—reminding me to get up and get moving, even if it’s just to walk back and forth across the room a few times.

My leg cramps have subsided. And I have to say, it’s nice to work sitting down again.

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