I am asked by a lot of patients for my opinion on the new trend of using upright/standing desks. Are they a healthy alternative to sitting at a desk all day long? Will they aid in weight loss? Should I spend the money? The best short-answer I can give would be and ambiguous “definitely maybe.” But who likes short-answers?! Not this guy (as evident by my tendency to talk… a lot).
So how about some clarification? I guess my answer would depend on your goals in the realm of health and wellness. First and foremost, if your goal is losing weight, shedding fat is a complicated physiological process which takes into account hormonal regulation largely influenced by dietary choices versus physical activity. By “largely”, I mean your diet takes greater than a 95% burden of weight loss. This means the hours upon hours you slog out in the gym, blowing out disks at crossfit, running on a treadmill and yes… standing at a desk while working, only equates to a minimal change in body composition. This isn't to say that increasing physical activity, any way you can fit it in, is not good for you… it most definitely is! Even the crossfitters who are recovering from reconstructive knee surgery gain a few healthy benefits from their activities. But I digress… let's look at the data.
Luckily for us, studies have already been done evaluating the benefits of standing versus sitting at your workspace. And doing so does, in fact, increase your energy expenditure (total calories out) compared to those who sit. And for those hardcore office-dwellers who level-up on their peers and choose to stand on balance boards while working, they have an even greater total energy expenditure throughout the work-day. This is great... amitrite?! Well, again… yes and no (why does everything have to be so damn ambiguous???).
I'll start by explaining the “yes”. In my personal medical opinion, anything we can do during the day to mimic our ancestral pattern of living is a move in the right direction (pun intended). Humans are designed to traverse rough, uneven terrain while hunting and gathering food. Anything that mimics this lifestyle is bound to activate our genetic proclivity to adapt and survive. Of course, I wanted to try this out myself to add some anecdotal evidence to the mix so I spent the last three months either standing in front of the computer, standing on a balance board at the computer or sitting in a prototypical ergonomically insufficient office chair. After roughly 90 days, at the writing of this article, I feel that I have experienced some benefit which will be difficult to quantify. When I sit at a desk for long periods of time, my butt starts to ache and I start to get antsy. I'm driven by restlessness to stand and walk around or my skin starts to crawl. Conversely, while standing at my computer, I experienced no restlessness. When I did eventually sit to take a break, I get that subtle glow in my legs reminded me of the typical post-workout buzz (to a much lesser degree, but it is there.) So, in short, standing at a desk (especially on a board) did make me feel better. Take that for what its worth.
Now I'll explain the “no”. The majority of individuals seeking to make a physical change to their day ultimately want another tool for weight loss. However, studies show increasing energy expenditure on a daily basis doesn't typically lead to a caloric deficit and subsequent weight loss. The human body's metabolism is just too complicated for such an easy solution. If increased daily activity lead to a chronic caloric deficit for our ancestors then they would have withered away and died from malnutrition eons ago. Unfortunately, (or fortunately as it helped humans survive long enough for us to have this conversation… potato/potata), our metabolism adjusts widely on a daily basis. Some estimates suggest it varies by as much as 50% on any given day based on energy consumption versus expendature. This has been proven time and time again. One famous study was performed by Dr. Herman Pontzer who studied the hunter gatherer Hadza tribe of Tanzania. The Hadzas traveled 15-20 miles every day in order to gather food. Dr. Pontzer discovered that “despite all this physical activity, the number of calories the Hazda burned per day was indistinguishable from typical adults in Europe and the US”! (Pontzer H. Debunking the hunter-gatherer workout. NYT 2012, Aug 24.) So there it is… standing at your desk can make you feel better and may be one of many steps to optimize healthy living. In my medical experience, I found that most folks who want to be healthy seldom make one change. It is typically a complete lifestyle overhaul complete with increased daily activities and better dietary choices and this is what leads to changes in body composition.
So my two scents: Standing while working, even for some of the day, will definitely make you feel better but don't expect miracles. The small study referenced above showed an increase in “pain” for folks who stood at their desk. This number increased after 10 minutes and decreased after 20. I can attest to this. I performed this self-experiment while keto-adapting and I did notice some fatigue (much like lactic acid buildup during exercise) in the small muscles in my feet, legs and back. I am not sure if this is due to my depleted glycogen stores resulting from being keto or if constant activation of leg muscles is just so foreign to modern humans that my body was rebelling. Either way, I just sucked it up.