To Sit or Stand: Is That the Question?

Whether ’tis healthier to work sitting at a desk or standing at a desk is a question, that as an ergonomist, I get asked often. While the answer requires no soliloquy, it isn’t a simple yes or no question, either.

Articles published nearly a decade ago, comparing the negative health effects of sitting to those of smoking or suggesting your chair is out to kill you, drove the now popular sit versus stand debate. Before that, sitting was primarily linked to discomfort or pain for those with pre-existing back issues.

Anatomy 101

Ideally, the spine has outward and inward curves that form a slight S. This shape acts as a shock absorber and provides structural support to keep us upright. Sitting flattens the lower curve of our spine and changes the overall shape into a C, placing uneven force on the vertebra and stretching the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, creating fatigue. Doctors started recommending that individuals with serious back pain/injury start to stand more, including at work. For this population, standing workstations were a solution to a very painful dilemma.

The introduction of the personal computer allows (requires?) office workers to always be working – and in most cases, sitting –  at their computer. Using email, search engines, instant messaging, and more limits our movement. Many office workers even eat lunch at their computer so they can get more work done.

All this sitting is not only changing the shape of the spine, it is increasing sedentary behavior. Why is that important? Because sedentary behavior is directly linked to increases in cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes and obesity. (Read: Physical inactivity a leading cause of disease and disability, warns [the  World Health Organization].)

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Ergonomics and workstations: More to know from ergonomist Linda Weitzel.

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In general, any kind of movement is what’s best for the body. Therefore, the real question is not, should I sit or should I stand, rather how do I get more movement into my day. If introducing standing into your workday will allow you to move more, do it. Just remember that standing can exacerbate an underlying health condition. And for those tasks that require a high level of concentration, you may want to sit.

Here are some simple ideas for adding movement into your day:

  1. Stand to answer your telephone.
  2. Standing or walking meetings.
  3. Get your documents right away when you send them to the printer.
  4. Walk to a co-worker’s desk and have a face to face conversation (gasp!) rather than sending an email or an instant message.
  5. Go for a walk or run errands during your lunch hour.
  6. Drink lots of water.
  7. Alternate between sitting and standing to work.

Recommendations vary about how much movement, or how much less sitting we should do every day. Perhaps the best advice is to stand up, take a deep breath and walk over to a co-worker to share and discuss this article.

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