Standing up for worker health: fashionable desks bring minimal gains


Sit-stand desks are so hot right now, but benefit claims don’t stack up. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Sit-stand desks promise multiple health benefits, but results so far are much more modest.

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The science of ergonomics has improved the lives of people all around the world, but a trend sweeping through workplaces – the sit-stand desk – has researchers asking, “does it deliver all its promised benefits?”

Well, according to a new study in the US, the answer is “not yet”. It appears that although there are some documented gains to be had, most users don’t know how to get the most out of the equipment.

Ergonomics is variously defined as “the study of the relationship between workers and their environment, especially the equipment they use”, or “fitting tasks, workplaces and interfaces to the capacities, needs and limitations of human beings”.

And as for it being a recent trend, in 2014 The New York Times declared “standing desks are nothing new”, while quoting a Presbyterian minister, Job Orton, in 1797: “‘It must therefore be your resolute care to keep your body as upright as possible when you read and write; never stoop your head nor bend your breast. To prevent this, you should get a standing desk’.”

For office workers the sit-stand desk is supposed to break the cycle of sedentary sitting and promote cardiovascular health and weight loss, leading to improved mental performance.

“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," says the University of Pittsburgh’s April Chambers, one of the authors of the new study, published in the journal Applied Ergonomics.

Chambers has a 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,” she says.

Chambers, working with Nancy Baker, from Tufts University, in Massachusetts, and Michelle Robertson, from the private-sector Office Ergonomics Research Committee, collected 53 studies to produce a scoping review examining the effects of a sit-stand desk and how it affected behaviour, physiological outcomes, work performance, psychological changes, discomfort, and posture.

“The study found only minimal impacts on any of those areas, the strongest being changes in behaviour and discomfort,” Baker says.

They found that the use of a sit-stand desk caused participants to sit less and stand more and made them more comfortable at work.

But they also found many frustrations related to the equipment. Users had been led to believe using the desks would lead to significant weight loss, but they did not achieve the results they expected.

According to the review, physiological effects were the most studied, but within that domain, there were no significant results with regards to obesity.

Some health benefits are attributable to using sit-stand desks, Chambers says, such as a slight decrease in blood pressure or low back-pain relief, but people are not yet burning enough calories to lose weight with the devices.

“Though these are mild benefits, certain populations might benefit greatly from even a small change in their health,” she says. “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.”

Chambers believes deployment of the equipment in workplaces needs to be studied, along with how it is used.

“There are basic ergonomic concepts that seem to be overlooked,” she says. “Many workers receive sit-stand desks and start using them without direction.

“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.”

She says current research is limited because many studies were done with young, healthy subjects who were asked to use the desk for a week or month at most. Since some of the significant benefits are with cardiovascular health or muscle discomfort, it may be beneficial to perform additional studies with middle-aged or overweight workers.

“There is still more to learn about sit-stand desks,” Chambers says. “The science is catching up so let's use what we've studied in this area to advance the research and answer some of these pressing questions so that people can use sit-stand desks correctly and get the most benefit from them.”

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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