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Sit-Stand Desks Don't Work

People still mostly sit.
He'll sit eventually. They all do. (Photo: John M/Flickr)

He'll sit eventually. They all do. (Photo: John M/Flickr)

In the never-ending quest for fast fitness—and in response to research suggesting that sitting is rather bad for you—some have turned to novel office contraptions like sit-stand desks, treadmill desks, and even cycling desks.

None of them are working very well, according to a review of the evidence.

"The nature of office work has changed considerably over the last couple of decades such that workers do not have to move from their work stations even for simple activities like communicating with colleagues or storing information in files," write Nipun Shrestha and his colleagues. Too much sitting is quite bad for your health too—it can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and early deaths, even for people who get regular exercise.

In light of those findings, the office furniture industry has been more than happy to supply alternatives, including the aforementioned sit-stand desk. (For the uninitiated, that's a desk that can rise from a standard height of around 28 inches to over 40 inches, allowing a person to work while standing up.) There's even a collaborative cycling desk/gadget charger called the WeBike, a sort of cross between a desk, a conference bike (yes, that's also a thing), and Ed Begley Jr.'s bicycle-powered toaster.

"Studies were very poorly designed and had very few participants."

But do any of these contraptions accomplish their goal? That is, do they get people standing and moving around? The truth is, there isn't much data yet—Shrestha and his colleagues found only 20 studies of workplace sitting interventions that met their review criteria, with a total of 2,180 participants. The results they did find aren't all that promising.

Across six small studies, sit-stand desks reduced sitting time by between 30 minutes and two hours a day—a noticeable effect, but much less than the four hours experts currently recommend. Desks that incorporate treadmills or stationary bicycles had even less effect.

Apart from the gadgetry, some businesses have introduced policies to encourage more activity, such as walking meetings, counseling aimed at reducing employees' sitting time, and computerized reminders to get up and move around—all of which had similarly lackluster effects on sitting time, if they had any effect of all.

On the other hand, an absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence—and, more than anything, there's an absence of evidence. "The quality of evidence [across studies] was very low to low for most interventions mainly because studies were very poorly designed and because they had very few participants," the team writes. There is some evidence, but "very low quality evidence," that sit-stand desks could help curb excessive sitting. "We need research to assess the effectiveness of different types of interventions for decreasing sitting at workplaces in the long term."


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