Standing Desks Revisited: Worth Using After All?

by Nancy Ordman

Academic researchers regularly come up with different answers to the same questions. Research on the use of standing desks is another example of this quandary. A couple of months ago the IEEE Job Site reported that standing desks offer their users only marginal benefits. A team of neuroscientists from UCLA recently published a study with a somewhat different conclusion (March, 2018, PLoS One

Do-it-yourself standing desk. Source: Rex Hammock / CC BY-SA 2.0 

The UCLA team did not address the benefits of, or lack thereof, of standing desks. Their focus was the effect of aerobic fitness on

the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Their study investigated the effects of exercise on the thickness of the brain’s medial temporal lobe (MTL), which contains the hippocampus. The hippocampus is central to learning and memory, and is one of the first brain regions that Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias damage. The thicker the medial temporal lobe, the healthier it is; aerobic fitness correlates with thicker MTLs and healthier hippocampi.

One finding the UCLA study reported separated the effects of physical exercise from sedentary behavior: sedentary behavior, not physical activity, correlated with thinner MTLs. This distinction is subtle since non-sitting behavior is frequently some sort of exercise, however casual the exercise might be. A walk to the break room is a good example. The study’s results indicate that standing itself somehow affects MTL thickness; standing while chatting with a colleague is preferable to sitting down.

The research behind the earlier article looked at a range of purported standing-desk benefits, like mental alertness and physical activity levels, and concluded that workers who use such desks gain little benefit and might be bad for legs and feet. Extrapolating the benefits of standing – whether at a desk, at the bus stop, or peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink — from the UCLA study into a recommendation for office furniture uses the results in a way not intended by the authors.

What to do? Some offices have standing desk workstations available to anyone who wants to take a brief, or not so brief, respite from sitting. Some people need full-time standing desks to accommodate physical problems that make sitting difficult. Whether standing desk is available or not, perhaps the best advice from the UCLA study is to stand up and stay standing for a few minutes, several times during a workday.