Is Standing Healthier Than Sitting?

Is Standing Healthier Than Sitting?

Is standing up a lot a good idea? The claimed health benefits for standing rather than sitting are quite impressive. According to excessive sitting is causing “obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, depression and the cascade of health ills and everyday malaise that come from what scientists have named sitting disease. “

I don’t know how accurate these claims are. Generally speaking when you see hyperbolic language like this there is a good chance somebody is trying to scare you. This might be for good reasons,  but is more likely to be aimed at transferring cash from your pocket to theirs. And almost needless to say there are now special desks designed to enable you to work while standing.  So there is the price tag.

Whether or not spending a lot of time sitting down actually leads to any  or all of the health problems suggested is a good question, but it is probably not a good idea to assess how big a problem it is by asking someone who has a solution they want to sell you.  You need to look at whatever objective evidence there is.  The big picture is that we are sitting down a lot more than we used to – largely because we have invented lots of machines to do lots of the hard work that used to be needed.  And we are living longer.  So at first sight sitting down looks to be the healthier option.  And at least one of the problems on the scare list, cancer, is decreasing rather than increasing.

But we are getting more obese, and this is something that seems to trigger off other problems such as diabetes.  And diabetes is increasing by over 100,000 cases a year in the UK which is a bit more than you’d expect even taking into account that the population is getting larger and older.  This rise has to be explained, and spending more time sitting down could be a factor.

There is a consensus among health practitioners and the people who cover health issues in the media that moderate exercise is a good thing for promoting health.  But an interesting review published in 2010 suggested that there might be an extra detail that is being ignored.  While exercise in the sense of doing stuff that works up a sweat might well have positive health outcomes, there is also evidence that being totally immobile for long periods of time might well be positively harmful.  If you think of exercise in terms of energy expended, you wouldn’t expect there to be much difference between sitting and standing.  You aren’t doing any actual work in the sense of moving anything around.  Physicists can work out how much energy is expended when you carry things around.  This is how the treadmill in the gym can calculate how many calories you have burnt if you punch in your weight.  All that is needed is your mass and how far you have travelled.  By this way of looking at things standing still requires no energy.   So when you aren’t exercising you might as well curl up and watch the telly.

Biology however is invariably more complicated than physics.  It turns out that prolonged television watching has harmful long term effects on health even if the viewer gets a good amount of exercise when they aren’t tuning in.  A study in Australia showed that the more telly the women being studied watched, the more their waistlines expanded and their blood pressure rose.  Further studies showed similar effects in men.  They weren’t massive differences, but even so they are enough to show that there might be something to the notion that sitting and standing are not equivalent from a health point of view.

This is a relatively new concept and hasn’t yet been investigated very much.  One of the first papers to investigate it came only 10 years ago.  This looked at the way cholesterol was handled by the body, and found that changing patterns of standing and walking versus sitting had a bigger impact than increasing active exercise.  This is a long way from proving that sitting is bad for you.  Science generally, and biology in particular, requires more extensive evidence for a notion like that to be accepted.  But it is a step in that direction, and there is nothing inherently implausible in the notion.

So my quick summary of the science is that it looks like there might be something in it, but it is an idea that hasn’t yet been studied in enough depth and detail for any firm conclusions to be drawn from it yet.  Even if the claimed improvements in diabetes and heart disease are solid, there might be health drawbacks that offset them.  Maybe standing up for longer weakens your joints and makes you less mobile in later life for example.

But life is short and it would be a pity to lose out on any benefits that might got from it.  You can’t always wait for the science to catch up with an idea.

There is also the question of what the costs might be.   Standing up for more of the day might make you fitter, but if it stops you doing things so efficiently then maybe it is still better to stick to the traditional table and chair.

There being no formal work to draw on I had to do some research in the blogosphere.  I am well aware that this is a great way to acquire inaccurate information.  I spend a lot of time on this blog trying to combat the nonsense that is written about cosmetics.  But nonetheless I fired up google to see if I could find any first hand accounts of people’s experiences.  There were plenty of articles on blogs that specialise in life hacks and the like, but I was interested in people who had tried it out whose main focus was on something else.  I think that the self help industry is not a great place to get information on this kind of thing because they have an inherent bias towards pushing new ideas as beneficial.

It turned out that not that many ordinary people had taken the time to share their findings online, but there were enough to get the idea that it was in general a positive experience.  People are more interested in the effects that they can feel rather than any effect on their health.  You can’t tell whether or not you have avoided a heart attack or diabetes, or even whether or not it is helping you lose weight.  But you can tell how you feel, which is probably more important.  Most people report that they felt better in some way.  A couple just felt happier and some reported having more energy. One even claimed an increase in creativity.  That was a particularly detailed account which I have put a link to below.  The most unexpected benefit was someone saying that they got more photocopying done.  It seems that there it is less effort to walk across the office to use the equipment if you are already standing up.

So having gathered some data and some anecdotes, I decided it was time to give it a try.  I decided that I would spend the first three hours of the day standing up – though I’d allow myself a break for breakfast.  After that I would remain standing for as long as I felt comfortable doing so.  I needed to contrive to get my computer onto a wooden box on my desk so I could work on it while standing.  It is easy enough to put it back down when I want to got back to sitting.

So what have I found?

The first observation is that it is a bit easier to keep focused on the job in hand when you are standing.   This is good for getting things done.  I was a bit worried about things like prolonged typing sessions where I thought that standing up might make it harder to keep going for the long haul.  But I haven’t really noticed that I flag any more quickly standing than sitting.  I find that it is easier to go and get books and things off the shelf, but harder to bend down to get things out of drawers.   The latter of these is largely because I have all my most used stuff in drawers that are easily accessible from my desk.  This is something that I could easily change if I decide that I am going to spend most of my time on  my feet rather than sitting down.

It feels a bit weird to read while standing up, but it is something that I find I can do.

Overall it is quite a reasonable way of working.   I do get more tired more quickly.  I haven’t worked out whether or not that is net a good thing or a bad thing yet.  If it means that the total amount of time I can spend working goes down then it might be a problem.  But on the other hand, I have noticed that I get off to sleep more easily, which is a pretty big and unexpected benefit.

I have only been doing it systematically for a week now so it is early days yet, but I haven’t had a heart attack or developed diabetes in that time so that is a good start.  I should also point out that I do a fair bit of lab work, so compared to the average person I already spend a lot more of my time on my feet.  So I am probably not a representative person for seeing any big differences.  I am still interested to see if it puts more strain on my back or leg joints being upright for longer in the day.  I am also wondering whether lowering the barrier to popping to the fridge for a snack might turn out to mean I eat more.   But I am certainly going to keep the experiment going for at least a couple of months.

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Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2010 Jul; 38(3): 105–113. Too Much Sitting: The Population-Health Science of Sedentary Behavior Neville Owen, Geneviève N Healy, Charles E. Matthews, and David W. Dunstan

Diabetes. 2007 Nov;56(11):2655-67. Epub 2007 Sep 7. Role of low energy expenditure and sitting in obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Hamilton MT1, Hamilton DG, Zderic TW.

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