Sitting, it’s becoming fashionable to note, is the “new smoking”. Sedentary behaviour dominates modern life, just as smoking did some decades ago. And the health risks posed by prolonged sitting are making it frowned upon, just as smoking is.
A growing body of research suggests too much sitting increases the risk of developing diseases including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It may even cause premature death. The good news is that being physically active offers some protection against the harms of sitting; research shows standing or replacing sitting time with the activities of daily living (such as housework, gardening, or walking) could reduce the health risks posed by too much sitting.
But that’s no excuse to stop exercising: adults should limit their daily sitting time and break up prolonged periods of sitting, in addition to regular physical activity, for better health and well-being. In other words, reducing sitting time won’t replace the well-established health benefits of regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, such as brisk walking, running, cycling or dancing.
The health risks linked to prolonged periods of sitting are particularly pertinent to people with largely sedentary jobs, such as office workers. And a growing number of people are getting standing desks in response to the increasing knowledge about the harms of their sedentary lifestyles.
Standing desks, or sit-stand contraptions, are an effective way for office workers to incorporate more standing into their workday. But can you transition to standing at work without causing yourself harm and injury? Of course you can, although there are some precautions that will ensure you not only avoid injury but also stick to standing in the long term.
Tips for healthy standing
Before you start, please note that the usual ergonomic set-up considerations apply to your new work area. Table height, monitor level, monitor distance from eyes, wrist and arm positioning, and posture all have to be right to prevent physical discomfort and injury. Make sure to adjust your workstation so that it’s safe for you when working in both the seated and standing positions.
Once you’re all set up, here are five things to keep in mind.
Ease yourself into it
Like embarking on a new exercise routine, you’ll probably notice some discomfort in your body and muscles as you start to work in a standing position. Start standing for short periods of time and gradually build up that time as you get used to it.
Be aware that too much standing could increase your chances of musculoskeletal problems, such as back pain, and varicose veins. Many people experience physical discomfort as a result of sitting at their desks for hours on end; standing might mean the site of discomfort changes.
Try different routines to find what works for you
Some people like to alternate between sitting and standing based on their work tasks (standing to check emails and read documents, for instance, and sitting down to write notes or type documents). Others prefer to change posture based on the time of day (standing first thing in the morning for instance, or after lunch) or for set periods of time, such as every one or two hours.
You may find that you don’t like any particular routine and prefer to stand or sit to work depending on how you feel.
Wear comfortable shoes or take off your shoes when standing up
Standing on an anti-fatigue mat may help to mitigate sore feet, and some people keep an extra pair of comfortable shoes in the office for when they’re standing to work. Standing in high heels all day is probably not the best option.
Don’t feel pressured
If you feel tired or fatigued when standing up to work, sit down and rest your legs. If you’ve been standing in the same position for a while, it might help to go for a quick stroll. Changing postures or going for a walk allows your body to release muscle tension after you’ve been in a static sitting or standing posture.
You don’t have to stand alone
Get your colleagues involved and normalise standing in your workplace. Together, you can build a work environment that supports its staff members to stand up at work.
Not an option?
People who don’t have the option of a standing desk – or those who just don’t want to stand at work – need not despair. Here are five easy ways to sit less and move more during your workday, without hacking your regular desk.
Have regular breaks
Take time to look away from the computer screen or whatever you are doing, and maybe stretch, even if only for a minute or two. Try taking a break every 30 minutes or once every hour. If you’re someone who loses track of time when you’re in the middle of a task, there are myriad apps to remind you to stop and take a break.
Look for opportunities that allow you to stand and work
Try standing up when using the phone. Find a surface that’s standing height, such as a tall filing cabinet, and use it as a standing desk to do certain bits of work. Stand up during meetings or teleconferences, and invite other attendees to join you for the meeting upstanding.
Move away from your desk
Use the bin, printer, or bathroom that’s farther away from your desk. Walk to talk to your colleagues instead of sending them emails or calling.
Walk and talk
For small meetings involving perhaps two or three people, try having a walking meeting outside. Take a small notebook and a pen to jot down notes while you are on the go, if necessary. You may find that it helps the meeting go quicker too.
Take the stairs
Climb one or more floors instead of taking the elevator, and get your heart pumping a bit before settling into your chair. In fact, climbing stairs is similar in intensity to cycling or jogging, which are around eight times the body’s resting metabolic rate, or the amount of energy the body uses when resting or sleeping.
And here’s a bonus tip: drink more water. Not only will you stay hydrated, but you’ll need to visit the water source – and probably the bathroom – more often too.
Josephine Chau is supported by a Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for research examining public health approaches to reduce adult sedentary behaviour with a focus on workplaces.
Lina Engelen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.