Most workers either stand or sit the majority of the work day, while some have gone to treadmill desks, ball chairs, and kneeling chairs with mixed results. Research on these various options fails to name one of these as the best approach to avoiding back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, foot and leg pain, and many others maladies caused by same position all day. Research does, however, provide helpful information on the benefits and drawbacks of both.

Researchers at UCLA Ergonomics and Cornell University provide valuable information regarding standing versus sitting in the workplace, and OSHA relates basic guidelines for Computer Workstations. Also, MC Schraefel, a professor at the University of Southampton UK wrote a detailed analysis on the topic. Combined, these sources give solid information on the benefits and drawbacks of both as well as on what approach is best for worker health.

Standing Versus Sitting

Consider the following to help understand why neither sitting all day or standing all day is the best option:

  • The body works harder when standing than when sitting, which means it uses more energy. This equates to about 20% more calories burned, but it also means increased fatigue.
  • Prolonged sitting comes with a high incidence of back complaints and leg/feet discomfort. It also increases muscle loading of the neck and shoulders.
  • Sitting for more than 1 hour increases fat deposits and heart disease risk in addition to constricting circulation, slowing metabolism, shutting down muscles and tightening connective tissue.
  • Prolonged standing puts additional strain on the circulatory system and on legs and feet.
  • The performance of many fine motor skills is generally better while sitting.Standing for extended periods of time often results in leaning, especially if workstations are not ergonomically correct, and this can lead to disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Autonomous Standing Desk

The SmartDesk 2 from Autonomous easily adjusts from a sitting to standing position.

Variety is the Solution

Both standing and sitting have advantages and disadvantages, and neither is exclusively recommended. In fact, alternating between them is the best approach to reducing the risk of repetitive strain problems. To reach the right balance, which varies by individual, implement the following:

  • Create workstations that allow for frequent posture changes such as those that quickly adapt between standing and sitting.
  • When sitting most of the work day, make sure to use a properly designed chair that best fits the individual.
  • Develop a routine of frequent “microbreaks” to improve comfort levels and work performance. Workers who sit all day should get up and move regularly, and employees who stand all day should take sitting breaks periodically.
  • When standing most of the day, place ergonomic anti-fatigue mats under feet, wear anti-fatigue footwear, and have a chair nearby for regular sitting breaks.
  • Adhere to good working positions regardless of whether standing or sitting. According to OSHA, this means “neutral body positioning,” which involves a comfortable posture where joints are naturally aligned.
  • Move regularly. Get blood circulating to help avoid a slew of health problems. Movement aids in the ability to think more clearly and helps relieve the physical strain of standing and/or sitting all day.
  • As a general rule, sit down for heavy-duty cognitive performance (those tasks that require a lot of thinking/brain power) since people, in general, perform harder mental tasks better when sitting.
  • Stretch regularly regardless of if standing or sitting most of the day.
  • Run errands frequently. For example, deliver paperwork personally, hold walking/brainstorming meetings, and make copies as needed.
  • Experiment and figure out what works best. Sit when necessary and stand when needed, but be willing to try new approaches.
  • Learn more about ergonomics and how to make sure workstations provide the best options for each individual’s needs. The articles Understanding Ergonomics, Part I and Understanding Ergonomics, Part II, are a good place to begin.

Standing desks are certainly a hot topic in the work world these days, and for many, they provide a viable solution to the problems of sitting for too long. However, going from one extreme to another isn’t the best option either. As research indicates, variety is essential for worker health and especially for those experiencing repetitive strain injuries from standing or sitting all day while at work.

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