As news media professionals working for a health system, the people in Penn Medicine’s Communications office are not only an inquisitive bunch, but also a health-conscious one. So when the opportunity to get standing desks, a workplace trend sweeping through cube farms and office spaces around the world, came our way, many of us wanted in. After all, Google and Facebook have been offering it for years and even the White House is getting in on it, so there must be something there, right?
Admittedly, we thought they were cool, but we also knew there were legitimate reasons for the contraptions. The studies over the past decade blaming sitting for a host of problems—cancer, obesity, and even death—were on our radar, and we had our own set of bad habits we wanted to address by standing up. We’ll have better posture, less back pain, and be more productive, we thought.
Five of us decided to rise to the occasion. We didn’t quit sitting cold turkey, rather we opted for a height adjustable sit-stand desk that doubles as both. Monitor, keyboard and mouse go up when we stand and slide back down when we’re ready to sit.
The verdict? Many people in and outside the office have asked if I’m satisfied with my decision, but the answer to that question I realized, after talking with three senior medical communications officers who joined me in this “experiment,” doing my research and getting a little ergonomics 101 from a professional here at Penn Medicine, is not so straightforward.
The first piece of good news: the standing desks are getting us out of the sedentary position without having to stop working.
“I try to stand most mornings when I catch up on emails or when I’m working on a longer writing project,” Abbey Anderson said. “Otherwise, I would be hunched over the keyboard all day.”
This is important because when we’re sitting in a chair, we’re not burning very many calories. Our metabolism slows down, and as a result, the risk of becoming obese and developing diabetes increases, several studies over the last decade have shown.
Some of the most alarming findings come from James Levine, MD, PhD, a well-known endocrinologist in the ergonomics and obesity worlds who’s authored several books and studies around so-called “sitting disease.” A 2005 study in Science from Levine that linked obesity and sitting, among other things, made one of the bigger splashes. Studies from others followed. Many warned that being seated for six to eight hours a day may increase your risk of death by at least 50 percent, like this one from 2010 in the American Journal of Epidemiology that broke it out by gender, and this one from 2015 that reinforced the notion that sitting ups the risk for heart disease, cancer and an early death.
“It was the study on the perils of sitting in the mid-2000s that got everyone’s attention,” said Alexandra Rella, the Injury Prevention Specialist for the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “And then the trends started. Just like sitting on exercise balls were the previous trend, now it is standing desks.”
“But trends tend to wear off and a lot of people end up going back to sitting,” she added.
Indeed, according to Cornell University Ergonomics Web, or CUErgo, studies have shown that the use of sit-stand stations rapidly decline, and after a month, most people go back to sitting all the time. CUErgo also said that most people only stand for very short periods of time, 15 minutes or less total. This is at odds with what the experts have suggested: stand for two hours and work your way up to four.
Whoa. We started off strong here in the office, but hardly anyone can stand for two hours, let alone four, and we’re standing less these days. Turns out, quitting sitting was a lot harder that I thought. My sprained ankle about two months in didn’t help matters, either.
But I’m not as worried about my lack of stamina as I was when I first started using the standing desk. While sitting for too long is hard to quit, I certainly don’t see it as the new smoking, despite what some in the media have proclaimed year after year. “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death,” Levine told the Los Angeles Times last year, and many other publications.
One of the misconceptions about the detriments of sitting is that people should instead be standing all day. While it can be bad to sit for six to eight hours straight, any negative impact of sitting can be neutralized if people get up and move around periodically, throughout the day. Rella points out. In the communications department, and I suspect in many other departments throughout the health system, people are up and down for meetings, media escorts and other tasks. So we were likely in the clear before the standing desks were even suggested.
“There are benefits and cons with sitting, but if you get up every 30 minutes, the negative effects can be negated,” Rella said. “Just take a ‘micro break’—spend a moment doing some brief stretches, walk to the printer, get coffee, take a phone call standing up, that sort of thing. And with standing desks, it’s nice to have that option to stand built in.” The CUErgo has similar recommendations.
OK, so we’re likely avoiding the ailments the studies warn about us, but there were other things we were concerned about. The impetus for getting the standing desks was the hope for better posture and less back pain.
For the most part, it ticked both those boxes for me and my colleagues, as some research and scores of anecdotes on the Internet suggested it would.
“I was primarily interested in one because of my back,” Lee-Ann Donegan said. “I’ve become very susceptible to sciatic nerve issues over the last few years and at times have had trouble sitting- for any amount of time- as the pain radiates from my lower back down through my leg. So, the less pressure placed on the nerve, the better it felt. Standing alleviated some of the pain and stress on the nerve and my body as a whole. It was just nice to have the option to stand throughout the day. I found I thought and worked better and felt healthier.”
For Anderson, it’s both posture and pain—and another unexpected upside.
“I think it has definitely helped with my posture, and it keeps my lower back from hurting at the end of the day,” she said. “I also think – and this could just be me – that it helps with headaches. When I stand more often during the day, I don’t wind up with a headache at the end of it.”
Standing can promote a more upright posture compared to sitting, as we are more likely to be conscious of our standing posture, at least initially before we start focusing on the tasks at hand. When sitting at a computer workstation with poor posture, forward flexed leaning over the keyboard and towards the monitor, it can contribute to musculoskeletal discomfort, which could cause secondary symptoms, like a headache, Rella said.
“When you find something that works for you, then stick with it,” she said.
A boost in productivity has also been found. Google and Facebook reported to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago that employees are more energized, and a startup company in Latvia found that it increased employee productivity by 10 percent. FF Venture Capital in New York found that standing leads to more actively sharing of ideas. Research from the Texas A&M Health Science Center said that students who used standing desks were more attentive in class compared to students who sat after a year-long study.
“I haven’t noticed any physical benefits yet, but I do think I am more productive when I stand,” Katie Delach said. “It seems like a more ‘active’ position and makes me feel more alert and focused.”
Even though we’re still a bit early into the process, I think it’s fair to say that we’re happy with our decision. But I’m not shaming the sitters in this office any time soon. Both are fine in moderation, like red meat or wine, I realized, and I’m glad us four have the option.
And Rella reminded me that the most important thing is not whether people are sitting or standing, but how they’re doing it. It’s important to be aware and make sure workstation components are adjusted ergonomically so that the chair, monitor, keyboard and mouse are properly set so that whether people are sitting or standing, they prevent poor posture, neck pain and other musculoskeletal disorders.
People can have the best equipment in the world, she said, but if they’re not using it correctly, then they may not see any health benefits and potentially cause more damage.
Finally, getting a workstation, whatever it may be, ergonomically sound is only part of the solution.
“In a nutshell, employees should focus on their wellbeing and safety inside and outside of work,” said Rella, a licensed physical therapist who has been with Penn for over 10 years. “Ergonomics is part of the picture, but it’s not the whole picture, so stay fit by exercising outside of work, and pay attention to your work station. They go hand and hand.”