I like standing desks.* I have a real one in my office, and am using a homemade one as we speak. The research on standing desks is still in its infancy, but I think it is quite plausible that they will lead to some health benefits (we’re doing a couple projects on this in my lab at the moment). The most likely health benefits of a standing desk are improved blood sugar, although research is just starting to look at this (I’ve also heard many anecdotal reports about improved back pain, although this is outside of my expertise).
One thing that a standing desk almost certainly will not do is help you lose weight. Why? Standing just does not burn many calories. Sure it burns more than sitting, but not that much more. Take the below figure from a 2014 review in the International Journal of Obesity. They observed that sitting burned between .99 and 1.46 kcal/min. Standing burned between 1.29 and 1.36 kcal/min.
Or look at this study in children, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion. They provided kids with standing desks, then measured their energy expenditure using an armband. They found that children provided with standing desks burned 17% more calories than those using traditional seated desks (among children with overweight or obesity, they saw a 32% increase with standing desk use). That sounds like a lot. But the actual energy expenditure was still really small – among overweight and obese kids, the standing desks only resulted in an extra 0.38 kcals burned per minute.
Assuming kids are at their desks for 6 hours/day, that works out to 136 kcal/day. That’s almost exactly the number of calories in one can of Coke, for an overweight or obese child who uses a standing desk for the entire school day. The benefit for lighter children was roughly half that. And this is assuming that kids are not compensating by reducing their activity levels in response to all that standing.
Burning an extra 60-100 kcal/day isn’t a bad thing (although that still seems like an optimistic estimate). And I think there are lots of other potential benefits to using a standing desk. It might lower your blood sugar. You might feel better at the end of the day. But expecting large amounts of weight loss is unrealistic.
Which is why I get worried when I see people getting a bit too overzealous about the weight-loss benefits of standng desks. Take this comment, from a parent who helped convert their child’s school to standing desks (they are describing the study mentioned above). Emphasis mine:
For obese kids, the effects are even greater–and the Starretts believe that makes standing desks a perfect intervention for the epidemic of childhood obesity. “Kids with high body mass index can burn upwards of 30% more calories a day standing,” says Kelly. “That’s childhood obesity wiped out. All you have to do is stand.”
Let’s be clear – standing desks will not wipe out the childhood obesity epidemic. That quote comes from an article describing a school that is getting rid of chairs altogether. Which strikes me as a very bad idea. Standing all the time is not a good thing, especially for your legs and back. Standing desks are nice because they allow you to sit or stand.
So go ahead and buy/build yourself a standing desk if you like. Just don’t expect to lose much weight as a result.
*Disclosure: Ergotron and Oristand have donated desks for my research projects.
Featured image via Varidesk.