Do standing and treadmill desks work?

“We sit too much these days.” That’s the basic point that’s supposed to motivate us to be more active.

The public health community is unanimous in recommending more physical activity. It seems every other day a new article, story, or study comes out with the same conclusion: we don’t move enough.

A few facts about sitting:

  • For some people, it comprises 10+ hours of their day.
  • It’s associated with metabolic syndrome, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and all-cause mortality.
  • There is a dose response relationship between sitting time and mortality – the more time spent sitting, the higher the risk.
  • The health risks associated with sitting are independent of other exercise of activity during the day. In other words, you can’t compensate for 8 hours of sitting by just going for a 45 minute run.
  • The highest mortality risk is among obese individuals who sit for prolonged periods of time.

At the same time, most Americans spend a considerable amount of their time at work. So, what’s the solution? Combine movement and work.

standing desk
My old desk-mounted standing workstation.

Now we have a huge fascination with standing and treadmill desks. (Full disclosure: I support the intermittent use of a standing desk throughout the day. I’ve used one, both self-made and commercial, for 3+ years now. It works for me. I’ve noticed some benefits.)

The big question at this point is if there is enough evidence to support the usage of standing/treadmill desks. They are still somewhat new, so the breadth of research on the topic isn’t extensive.

Nonetheless, a new systematic review examined 23 studies that investigated the use of standing or treadmill desks. The review focused on two primary areas related to their use:

  • Their effect on health. The researchers were most interested in the potential ability of standing/treadmill desks to decrease or prevent chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
  • Individual psychology. This includes everything from mood, to cognitive function and workplace performance, to overall well-being.

The results?

  • Increased energy expenditure – Standing desks increased the amount of energy expended from between 4.1 kcal/hour and 20.4 kcal/hour. So, over the course of an 8-hour day, this results in up to an additional 163 calories expended. For treadmill desks, users expended more, averaging about 100 kcal +/- 51 kcal more during the assessment time when walking at 1-1.1. mph.
  • Increased heart rate – HR increased among both standing and treadmill desk users. On average, HR increased 8.4 +/- 4.8 beats per minute (bpm) among standing desk users and 12.32 +/- 9.28 bpm among treadmill users walking at 1 mph.
  • Weight loss found with treadmill desk users but not standing desk users – Consistent treadmill desk usage of at least 12 months found participants lost an average of 3.4 +/-5.4 kg of fat mass. Waist circumference also decreased among treadmill desk users.
  • Increased HDL – Several studies found this increase, with one showing an increase in HDL from 55 to 60 mg/dL.
  • Some improvements to “work performance” – No impact on “work performance” defined as typing efficiency when using standing desk. But using a treadmill desk at a self-selected speed of between 1-2 mph did optimize typing and mouse performance over the short-term.
  • There’s a learning effect – Adapting to efficient use of a treadmill desk takes time. One study found work performance decreased in the first 3-5 months, but then exceeded baseline after one year.
  • Mood improved and stress decreased – Fatigue, tension, depression, and total mood disturbances all decreased with use of a standing desk. Studies show similar improvements in mood with a treadmill desk.

A few additional things to point out. First, employees who receive instructions on how to use stand-sit workstations use them more often. So, there’s an important motivational component. Second, as I mention above, many of these studies are short-term. Few look at standing/treadmill desk use over a year’s time or longer. These types of studies, of course, are both costly and difficult to implement. And, with what we know about chronic disease prevention, it’s generally those habits we implement consistently over a long period of time that have the greatest influence on our health.

So with that, I’m going to keep standing and walking.

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