A study from Westmont College in California and the University of Bath in England shows that standing at work or while watching television is not likely to do much to protect you from the increased risk for obesity, diabetes and heart attacks that have been associated with prolonged sitting (Med Sci Sports & Ex, April 2019). Standing up at work is just about the same as sitting because there is very little metabolic difference between sitting and standing. The authors found that standing increased calorie burning by less than 10 kcal/hour, which is less than 12 percent more than the calories burned while sitting.
Not exercising regularly increases risk for obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and certain cancers and causes more than 5.3 million yearly premature deaths worldwide, the same rate as caused by smoking, and double the rate caused by obesity (Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Sep 1, 2016;23(14):1557-1564). Some people have misinterpreted the benefits of exercise to recommend that standing at work, rather than sitting, would also help to save lives and prevent disease.
When you sit in a chair, you fidget to make yourself more comfortable and burn a few more calories. You also fidget when you stand to relieve the fatigue and discomfort of keeping any muscle in constant contraction. People who exercise regularly fidget the most while sitting or standing, and therefore burn more calories either way. In this study, regular exercisers had lower resting heart rates, a measure of greater physical fitness.
Risks of Prolonged Sitting
A review of 16 studies on sitting and health, covering 1,005,791 people, shows that prolonged sitting during working, commuting or leisure time is associated with increased risk for premature death and that this risk was eliminated completely by 60 to 75 minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, and was reduced by exercising just 25 minutes per day (Lancet, July 27, 2016;388:1302–10).
Another review of several scientific studies also showed that prolonged sitting is associated with chronic diseases and premature death, but this increased risk was eliminated by regular exercise (Trans J of the Am Col of Sports Med, March 15, 2017;2(6):32–33; Am J Prep Med, 2011;41(2):207–15). When researchers measured the time that people spend sitting, they averaged more than 8.8 hours/day (Ear Heart J, 2015;36(39):2643–9). In another study that used accelerometers, the average was more than 7.7 hours/day (Am J Epidemiology, 2008;167:875–81), but when asked how much they sit, people under-reported their time, with an average of approximately 4.7 hours/day (J Sci Med Sport, 2014;17:371–5).
Prolonged sitting increases risk for forming clots that cause heart attacks, strokes and lung damage. For example, people who watch TV for more than five hours a day are at increased risk for dying from a blood clot in the lungs, as are people on long airplane flights (Circulation, July 26, 2016;134:355–357). People who have to sit for prolonged periods are advised to alternately contract and relax their leg muscles while sitting, and stand up and move frequently, to reduce their risk for clotting.
No Standing Desks for Vigorous Exercisers
People who exercise for high levels of fitness or competition should get off their feet when they are finished with a hard workout. You recover much faster by sitting rather than standing, and lying down is even better. The faster your muscles recover, the sooner you can do your next intense workout and the more fit you will become. You delay your recovery by standing or walking when you are not exercising. Athletes and serious exercisers should ignore the ads for standing desks and sit down or lie down when they are not exercising. See Recovery: the Key to Improvement in Your Sport
Prolonged sitting increases risk for obesity, heart attacks and premature death. You may have to sit for many hours at work or chose to sit many hours to watch television or work on a computer. Standing instead of sitting for at least part of that time may help to prevent clotting and other consequences of prolonged sitting, but a regular exercise program is much more effective.