Wellness Articles

Standing Versus Sitting Desks

Work Ergonomic Advice Provided by Vancouver Chiropractor and ART Provider

We all remember the hype and excitement as the idea of a standing desk verses a sitting desk would presumptuously be the ‘end-all, be-all’ for our sitting related diseases and overuse injuries. Sure, sitting was once coined as ‘the new smoking’ and is related to obesity, heart disease, and an array of posture related injuries, but what about the effects of standing? Haven’t we learnt “too much of anything is never a good thing?” What about the excess stress on our joints and circulatory system from being on our feet all day? Was there even evidence to support the notion standing was in fact preferred over sitting, or better for our bodies at all? Are we just addicted to this dramatic polarity in life where we swing from one extreme to the next? It has been nearly three years since the boom of standing desks made their way into office conversation and the results are trickling in. It seems, once again, we may have gotten a little ahead of ourselves.

So what if I sit?

First, let’s review your posture when sitting… Starting at the floor, your feet are planted lightly on the ground, knees at a 90 degree angle, sit-bones (ischial tuberosities) supported and tilted slightly back, and your spine straight with your core lightly engaged. Your arms are in front of your body perhaps resting on the keyboard or desk, shoulders are back, and your head is in a neutral position with your chin parallel to the floor. Great…. Now hold that for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and see how your body responds! Unless you have given yourself to the Himalayan Mountains as a Tibetan monk whose devoted their life to sitting and mediation for 10-12 hours a day, every day, then I give you roughly 10 minutes before your muscles and joints begin to fatigue and you slouch. Holding an ergonomically correct posture for that duration is near impossible! However, when fully supported, sitting is the ideal position for precise and repetitive work. UCLA Ergonomics states that sitting is preferred “when visually intensive or precise work is required, the activity is a repetitive nature, longer tasks are completed, and when everything can be placed within easy reach.” But even if you do manage to maintain a supportive posture while sitting, some unavoidable perils are still going to create havoc on your health. Catch 22, am I right?

Anatomically, sitting causes a shortening of the muscles at the front of your hips- your hip flexors. Which, combined with a weak core, will create an imbalance affecting all parts of your centre of gravity. This most commonly leads to back and/or knee pain. When you stand after sitting for a long period of time, the hip flexors stay shortened and pull your hip bones and pelvis towards the floor. This creates an increased lower back curvature (hyperlordosis), a stretched and weakened core, and uncomfortable tension placed on your knees. Let’s not forget about the headaches and upper back pain created from slouching in front of a computer screen all day!

Additionally, the health concerns related to sitting (obesity, heart disease, and early death) are present enough in our culture they still raise a constant concern. Sitting creates digestive issues, slows down fat metabolism, increases bad cholesterol, and requires little to no energy. It’s no wonder we are desperate for the golden ideal that will rid us of all our problems!

So what if I stand?

Someone must have said, “Okay… So, if sitting is bad, why don’t we just do the exact opposite all day and see if that works!” Sounds legitimate enough, and seems to make sense, right? Plus, standing desks look great! They are modern, space efficient and, to the benefit of those in the business of selling them, crazy expensive! So, they must be great!

Granted, standing will burn 150 calories/hour compared to the easy 112 calories that sitting gets you. It requires more energy, but does this mean that by standing all day we are going to avoid the negative health concerns like obesity, heart disease, and musculoskeletal injuries? Standing, according to UCLA Ergonomics, is ideal for “jobs which include construction workers, highway flaggers, medical personnel, painters, electricians, plumbers, loggers, firefighters, plant inspectors, and maintenance personnel.” So, where does “office work” fit into all of that?

It seems the studies for standing desks were mostly done after the initial craze, and they came to the conclusion it would be the better solution for stand up desks to be used all day long (versus sitting desks). Recent studies are now concluding standing all day gives you an increased risk of atherosclerosis due to the additional load on the circulatory system. This leads to heart concerns, varicose veins, and swelling of your ankles and knees. It also creates a considerable amount of added pressure on our joints (specifically the ankles, knees, and lower back) which in turn may cause pain, swelling, and decreased range of motion.

Additionally, the ergonomics required for a standing desk are just as (if not more) specific as traditional sitting desks. Standing fixates your posture which increases wrist extension. This often leads to individuals leaning on their desk, causing an increase risk of carpal tunnel syndrome or a tendonitis. Even if the positioning is perfect, you are still at risk for developing overuse injuries, and painful and long lasting conditions.

So, now that we are all confused and on the same page…what can be said for certain when comparing standing verses sitting? I say a sweet compromise and a little personal responsibility is in order!

How about we compromise?

Both sitting and standing desks have advantages and disadvantages; this seems obvious.

The completed research indicates constrained sitting or standing for long periods of time are straining and that ultimately, alternating work postures are preferred. Our bodies thrive when faced with variety and movement. This increases the levels of work performance, reduces risks of musculoskeletal injuries, and improves comfort. Intuitively we know what is best for our bodies. When we are sore from sitting for too long, we take a big cat-like stretch and move our joints. If we have been standing for too long, we often reach forward and stretch out, or perhaps squat down to loosen up our hips.

Let’s combine the sitting and standing, and add in those specific movements. If we broke it up into periodic intervals during the day, preferably 5 minutes every 20-30 minutes, we would see an increase in energy levels, decrease in overuse injuries, a stronger circulatory and lymphatic system, and an increase in work productivity. This theory is supported by Cornell University Ergonomics Online and they go on to add that, “simply standing is insufficient. Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles, and movement is FREE!”.

Set a timer to go off every 20 minutes, increase your water intake, download a ‘movement’ app- whatever works for you! Stand up and stretch your arms, waist, legs, hips, and back. Walk around a little bit, do a couple squats or wall sits to get your blood flow moving. Deep breathing and an intentional focus on relaxation is also key!

So, I believe we can call this one a tie. Both sides can identify improvements necessary to counteract the negative effects, and we can all admit we can add a little more intentional movement into our days. Think of it as a giant ‘reset’ button you can manually push every 20 minutes! Your body will thank you for it!

Have a great day,
The Vitality Clinic Team



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