why sitting won’t kill you and standing won’t save you

A study tracking the benefits of standing desks shows no difference in health outcomes between sitting and standing at the office.
leaning skeleton
Illustration from Corpse Bride

Remember when sitting was the new smoking and pop sci blogs constantly told you that should you fail to get a standing desk, say goodbye to years off your life? And so you rushed out to get some sort of a conversion kit so you can stand at your current desk, or petitioned your boss for new office furniture to ward off the Grim Reaper and diligently stood while you worked so you’d dodge diabetes, hypertension, and all the other health problems related to the great evil of your glutes meeting cushions. If you’re feeling tired and sore from all that standing around, here are some good news and bad news. The good news is that you can finally afford to sit down to rest your weary rear end because a newly published study of over 5,000 people found no increases in mortality associated with sitting. But the bad news is that sitting down too long is still an issue and so is standing all day because you can do damage to your circulatory system and muscles thanks to nature really not adapting us to being immobilized in an office for much of the day.

What the researchers of the study note is that too much media coverage of the issue has been about sitting vs. standing instead of inactivity vs. being active. Their subjects were a fairly active group of office workers in London who easily got in a few hours worth of activity per day and all that walking around and hitting the gym drastically helped lessen the damage of sitting for long stretches of time. In fact, the authors basically credit the city’s walkability and public transport in maintaining their cohort’s overall lack of suffering from conditions found in sedentary workers in previous studies. Therefore, they suggest, public policies aimed at making people healthier are being myopic when they advocate simply standing up at work as a panacea. It makes sense to focus on work because that’s when most white-collar workers are immobile by necessity for as much as 50 hours a week. But if employers aren’t willing to arrange for more moving around at work, cities can step in to encourage more walking, and undo much of the daily damage.

And that’s really the point here. Modern office jobs are so centered on being chained to a desk, in front of a computer that it’s very difficult to get people more active at work. Even if they stand up for long stretches of time, they’re still not moving much and aren’t gaining a lot of benefit for all their padded mats and ergonomic setups. When they’ll then get into cars to drive home, with every destination afterwards requiring driving, we’re taking an already problematic situation and making it a lot worse. It’s the key reason why Americans suffer from obesity to such a degree; a lot of time spent in the office is followed by navigating cities designed for cars, not people, and a total lack of portion control thanks to cheap, plentiful food, a third of which still ends up going to waste. Whether they stand or sit all day at work isn’t nearly as important as whether they could get some activity into their lives, even if they do visit a gym on a regular basis. So go ahead, sit down or stand up, whatever feels best. Just remember that you also need to do more than just stare at the screen once you do if really want to extend your life, instead of just hoping to.

# health // longevity / medical research / work


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