Standing desks offer many health benefits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 5:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 5:32pm

If you're sitting while reading this, stand up. While chairs are often blamed for our aches and pains, they're now being linked to our potential demise.

Recent research has linked prolonged sitting to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Some scientists even consider sitting more dangerous than smoking.

The office - where many Hongkongers spend up to 12 hours a day, some even longer - is the most dangerous perpetrator of what's been called "sitting disease" by scientists.

Some people are, literally, taking a stand against the illness. Standing desks, even treadmill desks, have taken off as a worldwide trend, and are a feature in the offices of Google and Facebook.

Although standing desks are nothing new - the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill worked at standing desks all their lives - they are yet to become a feature in a standard Hong Kong office.

Sitting for continued periods of time causes your body and its systems to slow down or actually shut down at a metabolic level
Marc Hamilton, professor and director of the Inactivity Physiology Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana

But one Hong Kong company is on a mission to change that. Chris Sherer, a qualified physiotherapist, founded The Standing Desk Company earlier this year and offers electric, height-adjustable standing desks and fitting services in response to the growing need.

Sherer found that about 20 per cent of his patients complained of aches and pains caused by prolonged sitting. When he discovered how difficult - and expensive - it was to get a standing desk in Hong Kong, Sherer took up the challenge.

"The beauty about standing is that your postural muscles are firing all the time, so you have blood flowing around the body. But when you sit, they turn off, and muscles like the hip flexors tighten up," he says.

"People often get sciatic pain, specifically, as their butt muscles are constantly stretched. Once standing, the deeper bum muscles have to work harder; in particular the piriformis muscle, which in turn swells and can pinch on the sciatic nerve causing leg symptoms."

When sitting, our muscles stop firing and our circulation slows. So our body pumps less blood, uses less of our blood sugars and burns less fat and calories.

Seventy-seven per cent of the working day is sedentary, and 20 per cent light intensity time, according to a study by Australian researchers of nearly 200 employees working in offices, call centres and customer service.

The greater concern of the study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2012, was the extended periods of inactivity observed - unbroken bouts of 20 minutes or more - which is understood to be most damaging to health.


"Sitting for continued periods of time causes your body and its systems to slow down or actually shut down at a metabolic level," says Marc Hamilton, professor and director of the Inactivity Physiology Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana, US. "Our bodies were designed to move," he says.

It affects our moods, too. Moving less has been linked to depression as fewer endorphins, or "happy hormones", are released in the brain. Sitting also leads to muscle tightness, and can increase the risk of aches, pains and sports injury.

Unfortunately, being active outside of working hours won't "cancel out" your sedentary ways. Recent research by cardiologists at University of Texas' Southwestern Medical Centre found that two hours of sedentary behaviour can be just as harmful as 20 minutes of exercise is beneficial.

Exercise regularly and you may fall into the trap of making an excuse not to move outside of workout time.

People are about 30 per cent less active overall on days when they exercise versus days they don't, according to an Illinois State University study presented at the 2013 American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting.

The good news is there is a simple remedy: standing up.

Sherer has been installing desks in offices around Hong Kong since March, finding they've been particularly popular in the finance and legal industry. "Many people are starting to say, well the New York and London office has them, why don't we?"

He notes that Denmark has made it compulsory for employers to offer employees sit-stand desks.

Lawyer Bonita Leung, 36, has been benefiting from the use of a standing desk for the past 18 months. She alternates sitting and standing throughout the day by moving her desk up and down. Overall, she says she stands around five to six hours each work day.

"Hovering over sets of documents or drafting for hours on end, I found my lower back was hurting and my hips were locking up. I used to stay still for too long without moving; I'd get lazy and slouch," she says.

A standing desk has significantly reduced her pain. "With my standing desk, I'm constantly shifting from side to side, and automatically stretching."

As an added benefit, she has found her legs and calves getting stronger. Research suggests standing burns an extra 50 calories an hour.

Chali Bass, 33, has banished her chair altogether at her investment bank job. "I used to have bad leg circulation, and I found my legs would swell during the day when I used to sit; it was so bad that they didn't look the same when compared to the morning," Bass says.

These days if she needs a break, she rests in the office sitting area. It has reduced her swelling and pain, as well as increased her energy levels.

"With the standing desk I move a lot more during the day and get things done quicker."

There are cons, of course. While Ben Goodman has found his standing desk had a positive impact on hip issues he had developed from extended sitting, standing is not always possible.

"When you need to focus and write for an extended period, and you are standing over your keyboard, it can become a bit uncomfortable," says the 33-year-old, who works at an IT services provider in Singapore. He alternates standing with sitting on a Swiss ball.

Sherer warns that you need to work up to standing, and cannot simply go from sitting to standing in one day. "You need to build up the strength to stand for extended periods and retrain the muscles to work," he says.

Too much standing can also cause pain and discomfort. "If you stand too long or constantly, it can cause problems, but it's not as bad as sitting," Sherer says.

A desk from The Standing Desk Company, fully installed and fitted by Sherer is HK$6,990. If you opt to use your own desktop and just buy the legs and movement mechanism, it's HK$5,990.

For businesses, multiplying that number by the number of workers and the costs may become prohibitive. With the trend of "hot desking" in many offices, it can be impossible to have the working environment tailored to everyone.

DIY standing desks are also on the rise. "Some people put two desks on top of each other, or elevate their computer monitor with boxes," comments Sherer.

An alternative is to sit on a Swiss ball, suggests Sherer. This activates core muscles and promotes more movement during the day.

"The only problem is that people can still slouch on a Swiss ball. Many people don't recruit the right muscles, which can do little for pains."