Sitting is being called the new smoking. Office employees now spend an estimated 66 percent of their total workday sitting down, and that time spent in a chair raises one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity — even for those who exercise outside of work.
To combat the sitting “epidemic,” employers and workers have turned to solutions like sit-stand desks, walking meetings, even counseling. Yet the health benefits of such interventions are uncertain, according to a new review of the scientific evidence from the Cochrane Library.
“Overall, our conclusion wasn’t very positive,” says study author Jos Verbeek, a health researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and coordinator of the Cochrane Work Review Group, which analyzes research on work and health. “Based on what we know at the moment, the health benefits of standing at work are not very clear.”
The team identified and analyzed 20 studies totaling 2,174 participants. The studies assessed the effects of a range of workplace interventions, including sit-stand desks, treadmill desks, pedaling desks, counseling, and even computer prompts encouraging workers to stand.
Overall, the studies simply weren’t good enough quality to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of such interventions. Many of the studies were poorly designed, and most had too few participants to draw significant conclusions, Verbeek said.
The team did find that sit-stand desks decrease the amount of time a person spent sitting by an average of 30 minutes to two hours. That may sound like a lot, yet an international group of experts recommends individuals aim for two to four hours of standing and light exercise each work day, so it appears that sit-stand desks simply aren’t enough.
The findings don’t mean that standing desks are useless, just that we don’t have evidence to confirm that they combat the ills of sitting. And the difference in the number of calories burned by standing instead of sitting is minor, says Verbeek, so don’t believe any claims that a standing desk can assist in weight loss.
One small study of treadmill desks showed a reduction in sitting time, while a study of a pedaling desk — where a person pedals on a small machine under the desk — did not.
Until better research is done on sitting interventions, office workers can focus on being more active during the workday, says Verbeek. Employers can put up signs encouraging employees to take the stairs, for example, or design offices in a way to encourage workers to walk around, such as moving a central printer to a distant corridor.
“Be more physically active at work,” says Verbeek. “Physical activity is good for health. There is no doubt about that.”