Do Sit-Stand Desks Help Burn Calories without Causing Back Pain?

Regular use of sit-stand desks at work may help burn calories and prevent weight gain when combined with other low-intensity activities, according to findings from a recent study in Occupational Medicine. The sit-stand desks did not increase pain or reduce productivity.

stand at desk working

“In fact, other longer-term studies are showing that using a sit-stand desk may actually reduce pain,” explained lead author Bethany Barone Gibbs, PhD, FAHA, Assistant Professor of Health and Physical Activity, Clinical, and Translational Science in the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

For patients who have back pain or have recently undergone spinal surgery, the recommendation to stand on and off during the day is particularly important, commented A. Nick Shamie, MD, Chief of Orthopaedic Spine Surgery and Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery at UCLA School of Medicine.

“Sitting down puts significant pressure on discs and the spine,” Dr. Shamie said. “In addition, the pressure on discs is extremely high when a person is seated and bends forward to pick something off of the floor,” he noted.

How the Study Was Performed
For the study, 18 people (9 men, 9 women) performed standardized deskwork at different positions for three separate one-hour sessions: 60 minutes sitting, 60 minutes standing, and 60 minutes spent alternating between sitting and standing for 30 minutes each. Standardized deskwork included typing articles from a magazine, copying definitions from a dictionary, and math exercises. Subjects completed experimental sessions in a random order, at least 48 hours apart, and within four weeks.

All participants were between the ages of 22 and 57 years of age, had earned at least a high school degree, and worked sedentary office jobs with an average daily sitting time of 8.8 hours.

Sit-Stand Desks May Burn 50-60 Calories Each Day
The study found that if a person stood for 30 minutes during each hour, they could burn 5.5 more calories than they would have by sitting for the entire hour. Standing for the full hour burned an extra 8.2 calories. Switching evenly between sitting and standing over the course of an 8-hour day—4 hours sitting and 4 hours standing­—could burn as much as 56.9 calories for men and 48.3 calories for women.

While the number of calories is relatively small, it may be enough to prevent weight gain from working a sedentary job. In fact, the researchers pointed to other studies showing that small increases in daily activity, the equivalent of burning 100 calories per day, prevents weight gain in most individuals. Regular use of sit-stand desks could be one of many small activities that would help office workers maintain weight, the researchers noted.

The Benefits of Sit-Stand Desks
“Sit-stand desks are an easy way to get a boost in energy expenditure that fits into America’s current office culture. By combining the act of standing for part of the day with other casual activities—say, opting to walk to the printer farthest away from your work area or choosing to use the restroom that’s located a couple of flights of stairs away—you can achieve a meaningful amount of extra energy expenditure while at work that could aid in weight control,” Dr. Barone Gibbs said.

“It is important that we understand standing at work isn’t going to burn as many calories as going for a brisk walk or a long run,” Dr. Barone Gibbs said. “However, our findings add to a growing field of research that shows the benefits of sit-stand desks, including increases in productivity and energy, and lower pain, blood sugar, and potentially blood pressure.”

People can easily go online and read reviews of the best sit-stand desks and how to incorporate them into the office setting, Dr. Shamie said. He added that sit-stand desks are just one component of back care. Eating a healthy diet, sleep, regular exercise, are all factors that play a role in back care and an overall healthy lifestyle, he said.

Updated on: 10/06/16
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