Until recently, nobody questioned the virtues of working at a desk all day long. So long as you were in a comfortable ergonomic chair as you tapped away on your keyboard, you were fine. However, the standing vs sitting debate changed direction in the last ten years, due to the publication of dozens of studies suggesting that standing might be superior for a range of ergonomic and health reasons. According to the data, those who remain upright for more of the day appear to have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic ailments. The news media soon picked up on these ideas and began spinning them into click-worthy stories. Headlines such as “sitting are the new smoking” made their way into reports, causing the widespread belief that spending all day in a chair was as bad as smoking twenty cigarettes a day. Prominent health professionals responded with papers debunking these ideas, but the debate between sitting and standing rages on. Sitting provides more body support, putting less strain on the knee and hip joints, while standing appears to improve the lumbar spine's posture and burns more calories. In this post, we take an in-depth look at the ergonomics of sitting versus standing in the workplace. Which better and why?
Standing VS Sitting: Occupational Injury
With so many people now working in roles that require a lot of sitting, the nature of the occupational injury is changing. Today's primary risk of injury today isn’t lifting heavy loads (as it was in the past). It’s the effect of being in one position all day long. Sitting was once assumed to be the best way to position oneself when working because it provided the most comfort, allowing workers to concentrate fully on the task at hand. But new studies challenge that received wisdom, getting many employers to consider using sit-stand desks in their offices, to give employees a choice of position. The occupational hazards of sitting are well-known in the scientific literature. For instance, data suggests, that things like numbness in the legs and stiff neck might be more common in people who sit all day than those who stand or do heavy-lifting. Injuries from sitting take multiple forms. For instance, evidence suggests that there is limited blood flow from the heart when a person spends a long time seated. This effect causes blood to pool in the legs, leading to swelling. Eventually, this pressure on the blood vessels and directional valves at the top of the legs can lead to varicose veins in the lower leg.
The Importance of Circulation
Lack of blood supply to the legs can also lead to a sense of fatigue, which could explain why many employees who haven’t moved all day feel tired at the end of a day’s work. Paradoxically, the lack of movement produces fatigue. Sitting may contribute to bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments injuries as well. Localized, steady tension in some parts of the body, but relaxation in others could lead to muscular imbalances, leading to injury. Reductions in body movement, make it more likely that a person will cramp, stretch or pull muscles if they decide to move suddenly. This same effect also puts tension on the spine, particularly the neck and low back discs, leading to premature compression that causes degeneration. Office workers in their forties and fifties may have the same spinal health of a forty or fifty-year-old.
Is Standing the Solution?
Standing is supposed to solve many of the problems associated with sitting, but does it? The research on standing is relatively new, according to people in the field. While there is evidence from controlled studies of (mostly older) adults that sitting has detrimental metabolic effects, there are relatively few quality investigations that delve into the virtues of standing. The assumption is that standing must be good because sitting is bad - but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In 2017, investigators wanted to measure outcomes from both standing and sitting. To do that, they took a sample of 20 adult participants and got them to either sit or stand at their desks all day long, according to a protocol. Participants who stood with standing desks for two hours reported a host of physical ailments, including lower limb swelling and muscle fatigue. And they even said that standing caused a deterioration in their mental state, making them feel more stressed. The study size was small, but it highlights the need for proper research. Common sense suggests that if sitting is bad for you, standing would be good. But that doesn’t seem to be true. Standing appears to cause problems too, which is why a mixture of movements, both sitting and standing, could be optimal.
The findings of the above study on the ergonomics of sitting aren’t isolated. Case reports and media investigations found that standing desks tended to increase discomfort and lead to posture problems. To students of evolutionary biology, these findings should come as no surprise. Human bodies were in constant motion in the past as people hunted and scavenged for food. Nobody sat or stood all day long. Instead, they moved all the time in small and large ways. But with the advent of modern working practices, that all changed. So what’s the solution to this little conundrum? Well, one idea is to create conditions that mimic nature. There’s nothing at all wrong with sitting, so long as you don’t do it for too long. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong withstanding. So long as you’re not on your feet without moving for eight hours a day. The best approach seems to be a combination of the two, with a little walking mixed in between. A 2015 study from the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, for instance, found that people who spent around two minutes walking every hour at work had a 33 per cent decreased chance of premature death. Given what we know from evolutionary biology, this makes sense. Our closest ancestors spent a large portion of their days sitting and squatting. But they also spend a lot of it moving, hopping, walking, climbing and jumping. Perhaps we should do the same.
Standing Vs Sitting Ergonomics: A Primer
Whether you decide to stand or sit, it still pays to do it correctly. Failing to adopt the right posture will lead to a host of back, leg and spine issues over time. And that could affect both your health and ability to remain productive at work.
Here is the current state-of-the-art advice for people standing for work:
- Elbows should be parallel to the desk: Health professionals recommend that standing workers keep their elbows close to the body and keep keyboards at hip level, around the same height as the elbows or slightly lower (primarily to take the pressure off the wrists).
- Hands and wrists should be in-line with elbows: Occupational health experts also recommend that employees keep hands and wrists 180 degrees to the forearm so that they all lie in a straight line. Experts do not advise allowing hands to droop towards the keyboard creating “claw hands” since this puts additional pressure on the wrists.
- Keep the monitor at eye level: The position of the computer display also matters a great deal. Ideally, it should be at eye level. And the screen should be the same distance from the eyes as it is wide. If you have a 20-inch monitor, your face should be about 20 inches away from it, give or take ten per cent.
- Keep your shoulders back: Standing desks can lead some workers to roll their shoulders forward, putting pressure on the upper back and taking the body out of alignment. Ideally, shoulders should be in a neutral position, neither flexed backwards nor drooped forwards.
- Keep your head over your spine: Many people working at standing desks will lean their heads into the screen to see it better. However, this practice can strain the upper neck - a common problem among people who use standing desks. Keeping your head directly above your spine decreases the risk of this happening, reducing strain. If you’re struggling to see the screen, move it closer.
As for the Legs:
- Use a leg rest: Standing with both feet firmly on the floor in the same position can lead to blood pooling in your extremities. That’s why many standing desks come with foot support - usually a small stool. Alternating between one foot and the other helps keep blood flowing and allows you to stretch muscles in the lower body that could become tight.
- Use a standing desk mat: Standing desk mats are important pieces of equipment that reduce fatigue. They work by continually and unpredictably deforming, forcing the muscles in your lower leg to compensate to keep you upright. The movements are small, but they’re enough to fight fatigue and keep your body guessing,
- Avoid high heels: When using a standing desk, you should avoid high-heels and wear mostly flat-soled shoes.
Sitting ergonomics are a little simpler than standing but still worth considering in detail to prevent injury.
- Keep your mouse close to your keyboard: This practice helps to prevent you from having to open up the chest excessively.
- Keep your feet flat to the floor or on a footrest: Putting your feet up at strange angles or crossing one leg over the other can adversely affect your posture. Place both your feet flat on the floor or a footrest while sitting.
- Keep your monitor at eye level: If your monitor is significantly above or below eye level, it will cause you to tilt your neck up and down, which could put undue strain on your spine. As with standing, please take note of the monitor’s dimensions and then place it that distance from your head.
- Keep your torso between 90 and 100 degrees to your thighs: There should be a right-angle at the hip joint. Less than this, and you risk stooping forwards, cramping your hips. More than this and you could put too much pressure on your neck.
- Keep your knees at 90 degrees: 90-degree knees help reduce strain on the ankle joint by keeping the lower leg's weight directly above.
- Keep your elbows at 90 degrees: Your elbows need to be at 90 degrees as well, just as they should be for standing desks. The hands, wrists and forearms should all be in a line to minimize the risk of strain, especially when typing at a keyboard.
The standing vs sitting debate will likely continue to rage. But the truth is that both are tolerable in moderation. Sitting isn’t intrinsically bad for you. And standing isn’t necessarily good. What matters is the pattern of movement throughout the day. Regularly getting up for a quick two-minute walk every hour, will protect you from an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, minimizing disease chances. Similarly, if you stand all day, you burn slightly more calories. But even that isn’t ideal because of the ergonomic and blood-flow issues associated with it.
How Bean Bags Can Help
In recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the use of bean bags in office spaces, with many companies choosing to use them for branding reasons. But there is no reason - given the principles outlined above - that workers couldn’t use these pieces of furniture ergonomically. So long as the angles between the hips, legs, neck, back, forearms and wrists are all correct, sitting on bean bag chairs could be highly desirable. The great thing about bean bags is that they come in so many shapes and sizes. They also encourage different positions throughout the day. Perhaps they’re the future. As data continues to come out, we will learn more about the optimal relationship between standing, sitting. And other types of movement in the workplace. That way, we can all reduce injury and improve comfort.