Sitting down for long periods of time is supposed to be the worst thing we can do for our health. So standing desks have been much in the news of late. Do they make us healthier, happier and more productive? Or are they just a fad that could actually damage our health in the long term?

By Mark Richards.

‘Sitting is the new smoking.’ Most of us have now heard that phrase and if you pop it into Google there are 145m search results waiting to depress you.

It is a Monday morning so I will understand if you do not click the link, but some of the stories around sitting down for too long are truly alarming. In simple terms, the more time you spend sitting down the more you increase your risk of an early death. And if you do sit down for excessive periods of time, even exercise does not counteract the negative effects. According to the study quoted – which was done on 8,000 Americans – the impact of sitting down for long periods of time is the same on everyone, irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity and exercise habits.

Now we have got the good news out of the way, what is the answer?

For many people, companies and organisations it was the standing desk. Spending eight hours sitting at a screen was bad for you – therefore the solution was simple: spend eight hours standing up looking at a screen.

The advantages of a standing desk

Advocates of standing desks claim any number of benefits for them. First and foremost we are brighter and more alert if we use a standing desk, with research suggesting that standing up to look at your screen boosts productivity and cognitive function. After all da Vinci, Hemingway and Churchill all supposedly used standing desks…

Secondly, we are healthier – standing up burns more calories than sitting down, so we are less likely to gain weight. Standing also helps the body to stretch out and therefore engages our core muscles and leg muscles and increases our blood flow – meaning that we are more focused and we have more energy.

The latest research – performed by Loughborough University and quoted in a BBC article – added weight to the pro-standing desks camp. NHS staff who used the standing desks for at least an hour a day said they felt less tired and ‘more engaged’ with their work.

No-one has yet written an article suggesting that standing desks can improve your sex life: but the Daily Mail has come very close. Slumping at your desk apparently makes you angry, depressed and ruins your libido. Well, the answer is obvious…

The disadvantages of a standing desk

Inevitably, for every person arguing in favour of standing desks, there is another arguing the opposite.

A 2017 study in Australia found that far from improving health, standing desks had the opposite effect for far too many people. It reported that prolonged standing had ‘health and productivity impact’ with staff who stood for more than two hours reporting discomfort, muscle fatigue and swelling in their lower limbs.

…And the problems were not just purely physical, with reaction times and mental states deteriorating over the course of the working day.

The practicalities

However much you might think standing desks are a good idea, for many people – and plenty of small businesses – there is one overriding problem with them. They are expensive: by definition, they are a bigger, more complicated structure than an ordinary desk. While you might find a basic standing desk – or stand that converts your current desk to a standing desk – for between £100 and £200, as soon as you look for anything more sophisticated the price quickly heads up towards £500. And if you want the very top of the range models, you can go well into four figures.

Forbes magazine was especially scathing of the Obama White House’s plan to spend up to $700,000 (£538,000) on standing desks when, it said, the same effect could be obtained for free with a ‘cardboard box from the local supermarket.’

Even if they do not opt for a cardboard box small businesses are going to think twice about laying out a lot of money for what may be questionable health benefits. And standing desks are big – if you are working in a cramped office or in the spare bedroom at home, there may simply not be space for a standing desk.

Are Standing Desks a Fad or the Future for our Health?

So what is the solution?

It may just be that old-fashioned, entirely free, commodity common sense. Get up from your desk and take a break. Yes, there are apocryphal stories of offices in California emptying at five minutes to every hour, but short, regular breaks are ideal for getting some exercise and some fresh air.

And then there is the ‘walking meeting’ or – as it used to be known in the olden days – talking to someone. cheerfully lists 7 Reasons to Schedule a Walking Meeting. As you would expect, better health and inspiration from nature feature high on the list but organisations also apparently function more efficiently if they hold regular walking meetings as ‘hierarchical divisions disappear if people are walking side by side.’ (Why not go the whole way: walking barefoot is supposed to be the new miracle cure isn’t it?)

One man’s experience of a standing desk

Let me finish with my own experience of standing desks. Two years ago I hurt my back quite badly. Sitting down and writing all day was clearly not the best remedy. But up to £500 for a standing desk? No thank you. I paid the office handyman a tenner to put me a shelf up – exactly the same size as a standing desk and just big enough for my laptop and a mouse.

It was tremendous – I could bore my wife senseless talking about my standing desk. But I missed that moment when you finish a piece of work, lean back in your chair and clasp your hands behind your head. And then I discovered that my standing desk was exactly the right height for my tea and coffee and the kettle. Which reminds me: I’m out of biscuits…