March 4, 2019

Standing desks can boost productivity and improve health, study shows. (But there's a catch.)

Daily Briefing

    Employees who alternated between standing and sitting positions during the workday reported greater productivity and reduced back pain—findings that suggest standing desks might be more than a fleeting office trend, according to a study by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Mark Wilson writes for Fast Company.

    Cheat sheet series: Evidence-based medicine 101

    About the study

    For the study, researchers from Icahn, the Center for Active Design, and furniture manufacturer Steelcase monitored the working habits of 67 architects employed at Perkins+Will, an architecture firm. Half the workers were randomly assigned adjustable work stations, giving them the option to sit or stand during the workday, while the other half received traditional sitting desks. Both groups received workplace wellness training and took a class on ergonomics to learn about the benefits of proper posture and exercise. The participants self-reported their behavior and wellness for over a year via questionnaires.

    Key findings

    According to the study, the employees with traditional desks did not report a significant increase in movement throughout the workday, even after taking wellness classes.

    In contrast, just six months into the study, employees with adjustable desks said the amount of time they spent sitting fell 12%, compared with their behavior at the start of the study. In addition, 65% reported "a consistent and high-level … increase in productivity" since receiving the desk, according to Joanna Frank, CEO of the Center for Active Design.

    Moreover, 61% of the participants with adjustable desks believed the change improved their health outside of the office. According to the researchers, participants with adjustable work stations "reported moving more, feeling stronger, more limber and having less pain in muscles, joints, and back." The researchers added, "[The participants] reported more energy and positive outlook, being more aware of standing posture, and were inspired to create standing workstations in their home."

    However, there was a caveat. The researchers found the benefits of adjustable desks were most pronounced among those who were underweight or of normal weight at the start of the study. Employees with adjustable desks who were overweight or obese generally continued to sit at their workstations.

    Implications

    The study is one of the first on standing desks that was executed "in a real-life situation"—making it one of the most reliable studies on long-term effects of adjustable desks over a longer period of time, according to Elizabeth Garland, an associate professor at Mount Sinai and leader of the study.

    While previous research has found evidence that standing desks can decrease productivity for some employees, Garland said it does not mitigate the positive effect for those who choose to stand. According to Garland, participants in the Mount Sinai study chose to stand while tackling less challenging tasks, such as emails and conference calls, and opted to sit when completing tasks that would require more brain power. As a result, the conflicting study results only prove that "any dip in users' concentration may be deliberate, not a function of the desk setup itself," Wilson reports.

    The bottom line, according to the researchers, is that adjustable work stations are "associated with less self-reported muscle pain, more self-reported energy, and awareness of standing," for most employees—and should be an "option" for employees who want to give the trendy standing desk a try, Wilson reports (Wilson, FastCompany, 7/24/18).

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