This news release from the University of Illinois discusses new research from their faculty, which finds that moving your legs while seated at your desk may boost your metabolic rate more than working at a standing desk. Published in the journal Work, these results are surprising and intriguing, yet flaws in the study mean that the release may have been premature. Some red flags include the fact that measurements were only taken once from a very small sample size, and that funding for the research came from the parent company of a device that was found to be so effective. The device (described as “a movable footrest, suspended from the underside of the desk, which enabled the feet to swing, twist or teeter”) was compared with sitting still at a desk and standing at a desk. The release also gives the reader no frame of reference for interpreting the study results, leaving us with more questions than answers.
It’s true that Americans spend more time sitting today than we should, and it would be great to have a form of exercise that can combat the negative impacts of sitting while still remaining productive at our desk jobs. A solution like the one proposed in this news release, where you could increase your metabolism with minimal extra effort while sitting at your desk, is extremely attractive — if it works.
According to the study, the “commercially available” device referenced in the news release is called the HOVR (the company that makes the HOVR funded the research). While the news release didn’t mention the cost of the device, a quick Google search shows that these devices are available for purchase online and cost between $75 and $150.
The news release did briefly mention the benefits found in the study: “modest movement while seated elevated the metabolic rate more than sitting and more than standing, by 17 and 7 percent respectively.” But it gives us no context for these numbers — in terms of metabolic rate variability, is 7% a lot? A layperson reading this news release has no frame of reference to determine if these numbers are significant. Would 7% increase over the course of a lifetime reduce sitting-attributed mortality?
There is no mention of any harms in the news release. It’s likely that there aren’t many, since low-impact seated activity is good for joints and can still burn some calories. But still, as we say in our review criteria: if you’re only hearing about the potential benefits of a test or treatment, run for the hills.
There were several limitations of the study that could be seen from just a quick look at the abstract (the full article was not accessible by the reviewers), but were not mentioned in the news release. One limitation is the small sample size: only 16 people took part in the study. Another is that there is no mention of participant gender, even though there have been many studies that show that fat metabolism is different in men and women. The third limitation is that data collection was only done once; it would have been easy for the researchers to repeat the experiment several times to establish the validity of their results. The news release does quote the lead researcher as saying that the study needs to be further validated, but if this is the case, was publicizing the results from the study premature? The answer is likely yes.
The release fear mongers by citing a statistic based on one association study that looked at the relationship between sitting and risk of death. The study suggests that 7% of deaths from any cause were attributed to long periods of sitting down. What does it even mean that “Up to 7 percent of deaths have been attributed to sitting alone.” Does it mean those people died earlier than they would have otherwise? If so, how much earlier? And what sort of evidence would allow us to say with any certainty that sitting down was the cause of these deaths as opposed to the myriad other possibilities? If a statistic like this is to be used, it’s meaning must be explained — otherwise it constitutes unacceptable fear-mongering.
The authors of that study also cautioned that “sedentary behavior research is still in its infancy and that more high-quality prospective studies are needed.”
The news release notes in the last sentence that the research was funded by the company that makes the HOVR device used in the intervention.
No other alternative devices that promote leg movement while seated were mentioned. But in fact there are a ton of other options to stimulate movement while seated — from balance balls to leg and arm peddlers (and some are also significantly less expensive).
The HOVR device used in the study is commercially available, as the news release says. A search online shows that it can be purchased both from the company website and from Amazon.
This study is one in a growing body of research about non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is the energy we expend in our daily lives when not sleeping, eating, or doing sports-like levels of exercise. NEAT incorporates our fidgeting, our daily walking around, even our keyboard typing. This study is novel in that it found that, counter-intuitively, leg exercises while sitting might increase metabolism more than using a standing desk. But the operative word here is “might” –based on the quality of evidence the news release was likely premature, and did not highlight the many weaknesses in the study.
No unjustifiable or sensational language.