Does Standing at Work Lead to More Sitting at Home?
As the greater body of scientific research illustrates again and again, the negative consequences of too much sitting—metabolic disorders, heart disease, premature death—are plentiful. As a result, more and more offices around the world are giving their employees the option to sit less throughout the day. But are devices like stand up desks, treadmill desks, and sit stand workstations, which make it easy for workers to get more movement out of their day, also causing these workers to sit more when they get home? One scientific study featured in the New York Times Blog by writer Gretchen Reynolds suggests that may be the case. But our staff experts, drawing from their own experience as long-time standing desk users, plus empirical evidence from hundreds of readers that use standing desks, believe that this so-called “compensation effect” is the result of participants lacking the proper guidance for how to effectively use these workstations.
The study, and the NYT article about the study, fail to take into consideration that using a proper anti-fatigue mat is essential for capturing the benefit of spending few hours in a chair. It astounds us nearly every day when we meet fellow standing desk users for the first time that report never having heard of, much less considered, using a standing mat. Universally, they complain of sore feet and other symptoms if they stand at their desks for an extended amount of time. Sitting, standing, or even walking for too long a stretch will naturally lead to some unwanted soreness and stiffness, which is why experts always recommend switching often between these three modalities throughout the day. Just as sitting on a wooden crate will cause your butt to hurt after a while, so will standing for extended periods on an ungiving floor. Fortunately, there’s a solution for both!
Originally published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the study was conducted by researchers from the Loughborough University in England and the Victoria University in Australia, who provided 40 study participants with Workfit-S workstations to use at their desks. Over the study’s 3-month duration, the participants completed four assessments: before the study, at the 1-week and 6-week marks, and at the end of the three months. Each assessment lasted 7 days, during which subjects would wear monitoring gear that tracked their physical activity and posture. The goal was to evaluate the impact sit-stand workstations had in the workplace and whether workers who stood more at the office compensated by sitting more at home.
The findings are intriguing. After a week, participants spent less time sitting—from 10 hours a day to 8.5 hours a day—during the study. But the researchers found that this change occurred largely in the office. Compared to their baseline scores, participants spent a smaller proportion of their work hours sitting (from 75% down to 52%) and more of their time standing (up from 19% to 32%). However, as the study wore on, these participants then spent an increased proportion of their time outside of work sitting (from 60% to about 66-68%). In other words, workers were compensating for standing more at work by sitting more and moving less after.
What the Study Misses
What could be the cause of this uptick in home sitting? The New York Times compares the results of the study to a similar “psychological compensation” effect that occurs with other lifestyle changes. Cutting calories to lose weight, for example, can cause the body to lower its metabolic rate, making weight loss more difficult. The idea, according to the article, is that your mind works to maintain a status quo, often undermining attempts at a healthy lifestyle. For their part, the researchers are still evaluating the participants to find out if there any other changes to their habits beyond the 3-month mark. It’s a short study, with only 40 subjects, and there is much still unknown at this stage.
We have our own hypothesis about the study’s results: The participants were tired of standing all day! While the human body isn’t meant to sit all day, standing for too long can carry its own risks, including varicose veins, plantar fasciitis, and general muscle strain. That’s why we always recommend that standing desk and treadmill desk users—particularly those just starting out—alternate between sitting, standing, and walking throughout the day. We’ve seen many a gung-ho newbie start their new lifestyle with the intention of standing or walking for 8 to 10 hours a day. Once this honeymoon phase ends—usually after a few days—users succumb to the aches and pains of their over-enthusiasm. By the time they get home, they’re ready to put their feet up. It’s a common experience we’ve noticed among users, and we suspect that this is what happened with most, if not all of these study participants. The best way to ramp up to a standing workstation is slowly, through gradual increases to your daily standing over time.
A Simple Way to Maximize Standing at Work and at Home
A simple tool to help prevent standing pains is with an anti-fatigue standing mat. These mats keep the muscles in your feet and legs engaged, preventing them from becoming stiff. A separate study of anti-fatigue mat performance by Texas A&M found that standing on a quality anti fatigue mat—one with a 100% polyurethane construction, like the EcoLast—leads to less spinal compression and greater sit-reach flexibility than having no mat, or having a sub-standard mat, for that matter. Many of our own staff, having experienced a similar “compensation effect” in their standing habits, reported reduced fatigue and greater energy levels, both during work hours and after, following the introduction of an anti fatigue mat into their workstation. Standing mats provide a more comfortable standing experience, and had these study participants worked with a quality anti-fatigue mat under their feet, we’re certain they would enjoy longer standing times, both in the office and out.
The researchers suggest that while sit-stand workstations can reduce sedentary sitting and promote greater movement at work, their implementation should be just one part of a wellness intervention that ultimately extends beyond the office and addresses behaviors at home as well. In this regard, we wholeheartedly agree. Folks who have the means to easily stand and move at home—with their own personal stand up or treadmill desk, ideally—are less inclined to spend all their time sitting. And while not everyone will have their own adjustable height furniture, anyone can make a conscious effort to sit less.
To learn more about the different anti-fatigue mat options for standing desk users, see our Standing Mat Comparison Review.