Why Standing Doesn’t Work

If you’ve missed the previous two posts on Sitting, I suggest you read them first. They address why sitting is bad for you, and how to sit less.

In this final post, I share my thoughts on why standing as a default behavior is counter-productive and unsustainable, and how technology can assist us in making a permanent lifestyle change that involves much less sitting.

Standing as a default behavior choice doesn’t work for a variety of reasons:

The first and the most important reason standing doesn’t work is because it isn’t productive. Standing and working at the same time affects overall performance because you’re focusing on two things. Having to distribute your cognitive capacities between standing and working nullifies the benefits you might get from standing alone because only part of your mental resources are going toward your work, thus making you less productive in the end.

Treadmill desks don’t work for the exact same reason above. There’s also research from Cornell that explains why:

Others have proposed a treadmill workstation or a bicycle workstation. Both of these have been tested and shown to decrease computer work performance (typing and mousing slows down and significantly more mistakes are made).

While we already established that continuous sitting is bad for your health, the same is true of continuous standing. The same research explains why:

But, standing to work has long known to be problematic. It dramatically increases the risks of carotid atherosclerosis (ninefold) because of the additional load on the circulatory system, and it also increases the risks of varicose veins, so standing all day is unhealthy. The performance of many fine motor skills also is less good when people stand rather than sit.

Furthermore from the research:

Ergonomists have long recognized that standing to work is more tiring than sitting to work. Standing requires ~20% more energy than sitting. Standing puts greater strain on the circulatory system and on the legs and feet.

Standing alone is not enough:

Simply standing is insufficient. Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles.

Standing all of the time is not sustainable:

In our field studies of sit-stand workstations we have found little evidence of widespread benefits and users only stand for very short-periods (15 minutes or less total per day). Other studies have found that the use of sit-stand stations rapidly declines so that after 1 month a majority of people are sitting all the time, so compliance can be problematic.

In the long-term, the research shows us that both excessive sitting and standing are bad for you. As with most things, the key is to find and maintain the right balance – one that you can sustain, and to do so without thinking about it and it becoming second nature to you. If you’ve to think about doing it every time, then that’s too hard and you won’t be able to make and sustain the change.

Our forefathers didn’t use standing/walking desks and they did just fine. They weren’t obese. Sure, they didn’t deal with the “knowledge work” and required computer time that we are subject to today, but I’d argue that most of them were spending their work time sitting. It’s only with the advent of the 21st-century lifestyle that we’ve come to be more sedentary.

At this point, I hope you understand that it’s incredibly important to strike a balance between sitting, standing, and moving. That’s where technology can step in to do some of the thinking for us.

Products like the Apple Watch make it easier for us to track our health and fitness data, which help us sit less and move more. We get insights from tracking our daily activities (such as time spent moving, exercising, standing) without us having to proactively track that kind of data. Based on the data collected from these devices, we can see the big picture from which we can make informed decisions about our well-being.

I view standing desks and treadmill desks as fads, appearing frequently in the media. I don’t condone their use. Although I’ve never used either of these types of desks, I remain skeptical about them. I think their use is not sustainable. They don’t work, and for those who claim otherwise (including the hardcore proponents), I would question the veracity of their claims.

Just for the record, I define sustainable as something you have done or something that you can do for at least five consecutive years and counting, without any negative effects. If you need an everyday example for sustainability, think of brushing your teeth as a habit/lifestyle choice, and let that be the gold standard in terms of comparison whenever you want to consider starting a new habit.

There are some who claim that standing as a default behavior works for them all the time, to which I’ll say that you’re challenging a 2000-year old history of the human race, in that standing has never been our default behavior choice when it comes to working despite the fact that we’ve been designed to move.

At the end of the day, sitting less/moving more is a lifestyle choice. That means you either decide to do it whole-heartedly and inculcate it (by giving it enough time) till it naturally becomes a part of who you are, not just what you do OR forget about all of this. Whatever you do, just don’t half-ass it because that’s just being indecisive.

Ultimately, any kind of progress requires change. And like the start of any change, it will seem hard to do — because it is. You can only close that gap by regularly doing it. Once it’s a habit, it’ll just become part of your lifestyle.

So, in essence, it’s harder to make the change in the short term, but gets easier in the long term. Either way, it’s a choice to commit to living a healthier/less-sedentary lifestyle. Again, there is no point in doing this if you can’t sustain it.

If you take nothing else from this three-part series, I want you to sit less than you sleep (<7 hours), and use that as the sole metric for sitting less and living a healthier/less-sedentary lifestyle.

If you liked this piece, subscribe to the Weekly Newsflash to read my latest writing. Topics include mental health, simple living, and true success: