How to burn a few extra calories while at work

On a number of occasions Travis has pointed to the negative health effects of sedentary activity, such as sitting, for extended periods of time. That is, regardless of the amount of exercise you get, the more time you spend sitting (an inevitable consequence of office work for many of us) the higher your risk of disease. Thus, we should be trying our best to limit the amount of time we spend sitting.

Some people are proponents of things like the treadmill desk. Some prefer sitting on an exercise ball. Others enjoy simply standing at their desk.

But what is the caloric expenditure of these various activities? How comfortable is it to work while standing or sitting on an exercise ball?

A study published back in 2008 specifically addressed this issue.

In the study, a total of 24 men and women employed in sedentary clerical occupations were asked to perform a typing task under 3 conditions: sitting in office chair, sitting on an exercise ball, or standing. During this time, their heart rate and oxygen consumption were measured to assess caloric expenditure. Additionally, each participant rated their level of fatigue, comfort, and general liking for each situation.

In terms of caloric expenditure, both the sitting on an exercise ball and standing conditions resulted in greater energy expenditure than working while sitting in an office chair – approximately 4 more calories per hour.

In terms of participants’ subjective experience, they felt the exercise ball was as comfortable to sit on while working as was the office chair, but both of these sitting postures were more comfortable than standing (not surprisingly). The participants also rated their level of fatigue higher when sitting on the ball or while standing in contrast to the office chair. And finally, in terms of general liking – participants preferred to work while seated – regardless of whether they were seated in a chair or on an exercise ball.

For all of you productivity nuts out there, you may also be curious to see how much work the participants completed under the 3 conditions. The authors of the study assessed the total number of words typed during a 20 minute period, and found compareable numbers of words typed across teh conditions.

Take home message? If you’re getting bored of your office chair, maybe its time to slowly introduce sitting on an exercise ball for at least a part of your work day. You’ll be equally as comfortable and productive, but you’ll burn a few extra calories.

More important than the few extra calories, you’ll be the topic of discussion around the water cooler.

Have a great Monday,


Beers, E., Roemmich, J., Epstein, L., & Horvath, P. (2008). Increasing passive energy expenditure during clerical work European Journal of Applied Physiology, 103 (3), 353-360 DOI: 10.1007/s00421-008-0713-y

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14 Responses to How to burn a few extra calories while at work

  1. Hey Peter,

    Have you ever come across anything as to the safety of sitting on an exercise ball rather than a chair in terms of muscle/back strain/pain?


    • Hi Yoni – excellent question. I have not read any literature on the topic, but I have a friend who specializes in ergonomics who has in passing suggested that he’d expect injury rates to be higher in those who sit on exercise balls for extended periods of time.

      I’ll check in with him and see if he can’t point me to some studies supporting this assertion.

      • Colby says:

        I’ve not read these in depth but there is some concern in the literature about sitting on exercise balls. Look forward to your friend’s comments on them.

        Awesome Dwight picture by the way- did you see the one where he does exercises at his desk on a ball?

        “It is concluded that the advantages with respect to physical loading of sitting on an exercise ball may not outweigh the disadvantages.”

        “No benefits were found through sitting on a stability ball over that of a desk chair in prolonged sitting as both seating types were found to replicate a poor sitting position through a kyphosed and slumped posture.”

        ” Prolonged sitting on a stability ball does not greatly alter the manner in which an individual sits, yet it appears to increase the level of discomfort.

  2. xkyzero says:

    As a dedicated stand and code person, I found that it took at least 6 months to get comfortable with standing at my desk all day. Of course anyone asked to stand and work without having at least a few months to get used to it is not going to like it. Comfortable shoes make a big difference too.

    • Interesting thought… So you suggest that participants in this study should have had an adjustment phase to each condition? Maybe the results in terms of the standing position would have been different, once the participants became used to the posture.

  3. Sarah says:

    As someone who works in an office, but has a very hard time sitting all day I needed to come up with a solution to my dislike for normal office chairs. I find it not only uncomfortable to sit for any more than an hour at a time, but I also tend get more fatigued sitting than I do standing (sitting for long periods makes me feel terribly lethargic and sleepy). That said, I don’t always want to stand for the entire day; my solution was to raise my desk to standing height and use a pneumatic drafting chair, that way I can choose to sit or stand. This also makes me move around a great deal more because I change my position from sitting to standing frequently (I mostly stand though). I also like to sit on a yoga ball at when I’m using my computer at home.

  4. Cindy Marsch says:

    I started teaching online a few weeks ago, two ninety-minute classes from 8 a.m. – 11 a.m. and two more from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. two days per week. For these classes I’m talking on a headset, manipulating icons and typing or marking things onscreen the whole time, though students do have zero to two periods in a class session when they will spend a few minutes (2 – 10) doing a writing exercise while I can step away from the computer. After one brutal session of three hours straight in my usual chair at the computer I determined to try a standing desk, and it’s really a great relief. I find I switch from foot to foot, bend over to retrieve items from a nearby table, and just generally attend to the activities better while standing. I feel more “alert.” And afterwards I’m glad to sit down for a little while.

    I’m sold on the standing desk concept–mine is a MacBook on top of a 4-ft-high bookcase looking out over my back deck to the woods and fields beyond. I did interrupt class briefly last week to watch an osprey swoop through the yard after some little birds, and today I was tempted to stop and investigate the little flock of turkeys I saw down the field, but I resisted. I like looking out to the scenery while I talk rather than feeling limited to my desk scenery in my usual seated setup.

  5. Richard Larouche says:

    Interesting study, though I’m surprised the difference between groups is only 4 calories. Still, interupting the prolonged sedentary behaviour probably matters more than the calories per se.

    To counterbalence my preferance for the chair, I find that running up the stairs near my office a couple times per day is a good strategy. Decreasing the room temperature a couple degrees also…

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  7. Jose says:

    I dont’ doubt that sitting on a ball burns more calories, it’s hard to stay balanced on one without having to do some work. But my business is physical therapy and I’m going to have to agree with ergonomics friend, unsupported sitting would eventually lead to sustained flexion in the lumbar spine…a nice way to increase LBP and/or posterior movement of the nucleus pulposus in the disc. It may eventually lead to nerve root compression. I’ll try to follow up with some article links, I know I’ve got them somewhere.

  8. Carol Brown says:

    I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to learn that standing only burns 4 more calories / hour. As Richard suggest above, perhaps I’d be better off to run up the stairs or jog in place for a minute every hour than to have invested in a pneumatic desk that can lower to sitting height or raise to standing height. I wonder if there are other benefits to a standing desk besides the 4 cals/hour advantage?

    My husband reports that all the people in his office who got standing desks, now have high chairs, so they are essentially back to sitting at a desk – but with the option to push the chair away I guess.

    I switched to a standing desk a 4 months ago. It took me about a week to get used to it. That first week I was really fatigued at the end of every day. (And I am in very good physical shape – so I did not expect that first week to be so tiring.)

    One important factor is that I have a padded mat under foot – made a huge positive difference in my comfort level. I have an earpiece for my phone, so when I am talking on the phone I can walk around or sit down if I choose. That is one of the few times I do sit down now – when I am on the phone. Carol

  9. Violet in Twilight says:

    I worked as a full time sales clerk/cashier with no chairs in the store. Despite any advantages pointed out from this study, I wouldn’t want to go back to working full time in standing mode. The main problem is with feet. They never got better or comfortable even after 8 months and 3 pairs of shoes/soles change.
    Moreover, I developed a problem of massively swollen ankles at the end of each day. I wonder if I am alone or if these problems show up for most people working on their feet.

  10. Alexander says:

    Is there any evidence that those who fidget constantly and to a high degree are protected from the impact of sedentary behaviour? I say this in vain hope, as I sit for most of the day but constantly and vigorously fidget my legs.

  11. Liisa says:

    Working standing? No. Damn. Way. I spent a few memorable weeks as a bartender and I lived mainly on painkillers. Well, 16 hours shifts were tough enough but I spent most of my time on my feet, not only passively standing but going there and back, carrying stuff and what else and it was one big hell at the end. A bit of exercise did help with the swollen feet and such but I didn’t have time enough to lie on the floor with my legs propped up.
    I’ll stick to my office chair, stool under my legs and occasional walking there and back to bring or retrieve something. Four calories per hour be damned.