Standing Desks Don't Actually Burn More Calories

And they may even come with their own health consequences.

Posted Jun 23, 2016

By Katherine Schreiber

Office workers just can't seem to win when it comes to circumventing the consequences of being bound to a desk day in and day out.

For a while there, we all thought that standing desks were the antidote to weight gain and brain fry derived from too much time spent in a chair: A small-scale study published in the December 2013 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that workers who stood at their desks after eating lunch were better able to regulate their blood sugar levels than workers who came back from a meal and immediately sat back down. A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested that standing rather than sitting in front of a computer all day boosted workers' energy levels and senses of wellbeing. Another study published in the same journal earlier this year found that standup desks in classrooms improved students' abilities to focus. And a 2016 paper appearing in the January edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that employees with access to sit-stand desks burn up to 87 calories more a day than their seated colleagues1.  

Popular media outlets took these stats and ran with them. Case in point: a 2013 article by LifeHacker touting the overblown headline "Standing on Weekdays Burns Calories Like Running 10 Marathons a Year."

Not so fast.

As Gretchen Reynolds reports in a recent New York Times PhysEd Column, forcing yourself to stand up at work may not offer as many benefits as previously thought. Especially not in the way of increased energy expenditure (aka: calories burnt):

Summarizing an experiment featured in this month's Journal of Physical Activity and Health that tested whether standing goads our metabolisms to speed up more than sitting, Reynolds writes:

While standing for 15 minutes, the volunteers burned about 2 additional calories compared to when they sat down It didn’t matter whether they stood up and then sat down or sat down and then stood up. The total caloric expenditure was about the same and was not sizable.

In fact, remaining on your feet for too long comes with its own consequences. As Alan Hedge​, a professor in the Department of Design and Environment Analysis at Cornell University, told US News & World Report in 2015, "too much [standing] can compress the spine and lead to lower back problems over time. It can also boost your risk for carotid arteries, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis and other cardiovascular problems since the heart has to work against gravity to keep blood flowing up from your toes."

Your better bet, Hedge (and others) have suggested, is to shift between sitting and standing at multiple points throughout the day.

Better yet: fidget. No matter which position (standing or seated) you find yourself assuming (or forced to assume). A 2000 analysis of 17 women and 7 men carried out by researchers James A. Levine, Sara J. Schleusner, and Michael D. Jensen found that folks who spent more minutes of their days engaged in so-called "non-exercise related activities" — from tapping their feet or swinging their legs in a chair to taking a few extra trips to the water cooler or playing with a pet — burned more calories each hour than those who remained stock still when standing or sitting during any particular task. As the researchers reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

Fidgeting-like activities increased energy expenditure in each subject compared with the relevant motionless state. The energy expenditure of fidgeting-like activities while seated was 2.6 ± 1.5 kJ/min greater (P < 0.0001) than the energy expenditure while sitting motionless. Activities tended to be consistent between subjects and included hand and foot tapping and arm and leg swinging. Most subjects did not move their trunks noticeably; 8 read magazines and 3 performed hair-grooming gestures and computer work.

Fidgeting-like activities while standing increased (P < 0.0001) energy expenditure by 4.2 ± 1.9 kJ/min compared with standing motionless. The self-selected fidgeting-like activities varied greatly between volunteers. Some ambled around the 6-m2 laboratory; others emulated answering telephones, changing a video, or folding sheets; and one subject pretended to be interacting with a pet normally present in her home.

This isn't to disavow the confirmed upsides of standing throughout the day. (Recall from the aforementioned studies touting the benefits of standing desks that blood sugar regulation, energy levels, focus, and overall mood may get a noticeable boost from renouncing our chairs for a significant length of time.) But it is a reminder to be wary of supposed panaceas and to recall that engaging in a variety of activities is more advantageous to our bodies than locking ourselves into one posture or movement for too long a time.

As a (somewhat obvious) example: Subjects in the study covered by Reynolds whose caloric burn did not increase significantly in response to standing versus sitting were much better served (in the way of energy expenditure) by breaking up long stretches of immobility with brief, 15 minute walks. As Reynolds reports:

When the volunteers walked for 15 minutes, even at a fairly easy pace, they burned about three times as many calories as when they sat or stood. If they walked for an hour, the researchers calculated, they would incinerate about 130 more calories than if they stayed in their chairs or stood up at their desks, an added energy expenditure that might be sufficient, they write, to help people avoid creeping, yearly weight gain. 

Of course, it's equally important to keep in mind here that health isn't solely predicated on how many calories you expend on a minute to minute basis. Nor is it made or broken by the mere act of sitting. Yes, being chained to a chair all day isn't good for your body. But neither is fretting over the prospect of sedentary behavior shortening your life. Provided you take a few breaks during your day at work to stretch your legs, change environments, and get your blood moving, your time spent sitting — or standing — isn't likely to kill you. 

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[1] Since the full-text isn't accessible without database access, I'm excerpting from the study authors' conclusory remarks: "Based on these estimates and the present observances, employees with sit–stand desks likely expended an additional 29–87 kcal/workday."

Carr L, Swift M, Ferrer A, Benzo R. Cross-sectional Examination of Long-term Access to Sit–Stand Desks in a Professional Office Setting. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2016;50(1):96-100.