Up-and-down coverage of standing desks leaves readers in limbo

Mary Chris Jaklevic is a reporter-editor at HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @mcjaklevic.

Did you know you can get whiplash without even leaving your desk?

Just read the headlines about the health effects of standing while you work.

For a few years now we’ve been hearing claims about the health benefits of standing at your desk, while being warned that sitting too long can kill you.

This week a tiny study reversed course, generating these alarming headlines:

Washington Post: Study: Standing desks could be harmful to your productivity ,,, and your health

Fox News: Standing desks may be harmful to your health, according to new study

The Mercury News: Are standing desks actually bad for you?

Newsweek: Standing desks cause physical and mental pain and simply taking a break might be better, study finds

So SITTING for hours on end is supposed to be bad. And now we’re told STANDING for prolonged periods is harmful, too?

What are people with desk jobs supposed to do? Lie on a cot? Buy a treadmill?

“Pretty silly” coverage

Unfortunately, news organizations plopped this sketchy finding from a 20-person study into readers’ laps without offering much useful guidance.

The Post advised that people might want to “think again” about buying a sit-stand desk in light of this study. But is there really good evidence one way or the other?

“Pretty silly” was the take on this coverage of Steven Atlas, MD, MPH, a primary care physician and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who is a contributor to HealthNewsReview.org.

In an email Atlas said he’s “not aware of any good evidence one way or the other about standing desks for back pain or any other meaningful outcome.”

He said this study “doesn’t add any new information that meaningfully changes the above.”

News stories stretch too far in declaring standing at your desk to be “harmful.”

Leaning on one source

All of the stories lean on the same quote —  from Alan Taylor, identified as a physiotherapy expert at Nottingham University — who said the current evidence is “showing there are some drawbacks” to standing desks. He advised office workers to take walking breaks.

Somewhat more helpful was Australia’s news.com, which quoted David Hall, occupational health chair at the Australian Physiotherapy Association, who called the study’s results “highly predictable.”

The news outlet reported that Hall said standing desks are “not the solution to everything, however they can be part of the solution for many people.”

“A lot of jobs have a predominance of sitting, and a lot have a predominance of standing [such as retail]. We advise people to mix those two in an intuitive, natural way, much like how we’d use our body on the weekend.

“The challenge in any workplace is to try and allow people to have a natural flow between sitting, standing and moving. What we know is you shouldn’t sit for longer than 30 minutes at a time, but similarly different types of issues start to kick in after standing for a long period.”

Quality of evidence is weak

The bigger problem with this coverage is that the quality of evidence from this study is shaky, although that didn’t stop news outlets from reporting it anyway.

The study found “acute negative health effects” including “increases in discomfort in the low back, lower and upper limbs and lower limb swelling.” It also found “mixed effects” in terms of cognitive function including better problem solving and “accurate but slower attention to task responses.”

The authors said their findings “suggest replacing office work sitting with standing should be done with caution.”

All of the stories we looked at did note that the study involved just 20 people. Newsweek stated: “As such, it should not be the reason for anyone to throw away a stand up desk.”

Key limitations get neglected

But other limitations were either brushed over or totally ignored in the coverage.

One biggie is that the subjects of this study were observed while standing for just two hours in a lab. It’s hard to see how that could accurately gauge the physical impact of using a sit-stand desk for months or years in a work setting.

The study didn’t address the impact of alternating between sitting and standing, or standing on a cushioned surface or an uneven platform that allows users to shift positions. Many people who use standing desks do those things.

Another limitation is the lack of a comparison group of people who did something different, such as sit or use a treadmill.

While the study showed short-term physical discomfort in a lab, the coverage springs to an unsupported conclusion that standing at your desk long-term could be “harmful.”

Cherry-picking the data

The Post and the Mercury News seemed to justify covering this rickety study by saying it adds to a growing body of evidence that there are negative effects of standing for long periods.

But both publications cited just one, even more alarming, story published last year by Newsweek, entitled “Standing at Work is Just as Unhealthy as Smoking Cigarettes Daily, Study Says.” That story reported on a study of about 7,000 Canadian workers that found an association between standing at work and a higher risk of heart disease. However, that study was not capable of showing a cause-and-effect relationship.

We didn’t see any mention of studies that suggest possible benefits of standing for part of the workday, of which there are few. For example, a recent randomized trial showed that workers who participated in a yearlong program that encouraged them to stand and step frequently during their shifts had small improvements in some biomarkers of risk for diabetes, heart disease or stroke.

Still, an unsupported fad

The bottom line seems to be that more research needs to be done, although the news coverage didn’t make that clear.

Atlas said “we do know that inactivity is bad for the back. I guess a reasonable question is whether the type of inactivity at work, either sitting or standing, makes a difference. Neither represent activity from the back’s perspective – which requires movement.”

Studies that would address this could be done, he said, “but they would involve randomizing individuals to either standing or sitting – one could do it either by having different people selected for each type of desk or the same person could be randomly assigned to one for a couple weeks and then the other.”

Meanwhile, “the fad that standing desks represent is just that. Whether evidence ends up supporting this or not remains to be seen.”

On a final note, we’d like to mention the understudied social risks of standing at your desk, as illustrated in this snippet from Family Guy.


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Comments (1)

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Angela McK

March 27, 2018 at 2:42 pm

I love this article. Phenomenal work.