Sitting vs. Standing at Your Desk: Find out the Healthiest Way to Work

By now you’ve probably heard or read about the health dangers of sitting too much. Many experts say today’s sedentary lifestyle is the health equivalent of smoking cigarettes. And that’s concerning because studies show U.S. adults on average spend eight hours of their day sitting. (You’re probably sitting as you read this.)

Health Problems From Sitting Too Much

For most us, the majority of our time spent sitting is work related, either at our desk or commuting to and from work. The eight hours we spend sitting puts us at an increased risk for a variety of health hazards:

  • Heart disease: Sitting for long periods causes your muscles to burn less of the fatty acids that can clog your heart. Blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels increase too. Sedentary people have twice the risk of heart disease that active people do.
  • Diabetes: When you’re not moving, your body’s cells don’t respond to insulin as quickly, which can trigger your pancreas to produce more. This can lead to diabetes and other diseases.
  • Muscle degeneration: Sitting lets your abdominal muscles relax, instead of working to hold you upright like they do when you stand. Your glutes suffer too. When they go unused, they can hurt your stability. The hip muscles can shorten and get tight from not being flexed, which can limit your flexibility and stride length.
  • Back and spine trouble: If you don’t move around enough, your spine can become inflexible and injure easily. Moving around forces the discs between your vertebrae to expand and contract, taking in blood and nutrients. Sitting too much can cause damage to the discs. Tendons and ligaments can stiffen too.
  • Soft bones and poor circulation: Bones need to be put under stress to stay strong, and sitting doesn’t do that. It does, however, let blood pool in the legs, and that can cause anything from blood clots to varicose veins and swollen ankles.
  • Fuzzy brain: Muscles that are on the move keep fresh blood going to the brain and body. When you’re not moving, blood flow slows down, as does your ability to think.

If you’re interested, The Washington Post created this infographic to show even more health hazards of sitting too much. Click here to check it out.

The Misconception About Standing All Day

There’s no question sitting too much is bad. But as more and more studies got published showing just how bad, standing desks soared in popularity. If sitting all day is bad, then standing all day must be good, right? That’s the message many people took away.

The reality is standing in one place for long periods of time without moving can cause problems too. While standing burns a few more calories, it demands more energy from your body, puts pressure on your heart to circulate blood throughout your body, and strain on your veins, back, and joints.

What You Should Focus On

You’re probably asking yourself what to do if both sitting and standing too much is bad. The answer is your body needs to move around. Throughout the day you should be sitting, standing, walking, and moving your upper body around every 20-30 minutes.

Regardless of the desk or workstation you have, there are things you can do to make your sedentary job less harmful on your health:

  • Stretch your hip flexors in the morning and throughout the day. Climbing stairs is an easy way to do it. You can also get down on one knee and position your other leg in front of you with your foot on the ground. Slightly tuck your buttocks in and lunge forward slowly. Keep your back straight (avoid arching).
  • Alternate between sitting and standing during the day. Sit-stand desks are available and allow you to change from seated to standing with the push of a button. Aim to stand for at least one hour a day if you have this type of desk.
  • Stand up every half hour or so and walk around for a few minutes if you have a conventional work station.
  • Use an exercise ball as a chair. Sitting on an object that moves forces you to maintain balance and work your core muscles to stay upright.
  • Find the longest way to get to where you’re going. Go to the water fountain or bathroom on another floor, park in the back of the parking lot, take the stairs, etc.
  • Create walking meetings. They’re a great way to get physical activity in during a time you’d normally be sitting. They also inspire creativity, offer a change of scenery, and more.
  • Follow proper sitting technique. Put your feet flat on the floor, back straight up (no slouching or leaning), arms close to the sides, and elbows at a 90 degree angle to your keyboard or work surface. Keep your shoulders relaxed too. Here are easy stretches you can do in your workspace.
  • Do yoga or try some of these easy back stretches to loosen your muscles up after work.

The important thing to remember is you need to move your body around. What you chose to do really can be simple. But it’s up to you to challenge yourself every day to sit less and move more.

References

Berkowitz, B. “The health hazards of sitting.” The Washington Post. 20 January 2014, http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/ (19 February 2015).

Meet the Author

Dan Kristl, DPT, CMT, OCS is a Physical Therapist at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wisconsin.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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