Research News

Sit-stand desks offer little evidence of health benefits, review finds

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 17 March 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i1595
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. London

Concerns about the effect that long periods of sitting can have on health has prompted a growth in workplace interventions such as sit-stand desks, but an updated review published by the Cochrane Library has found little evidence that they benefit health.1

Sitting time has been linked to increased obesity, cardiovascular disease, and overall mortality, and an expert group, commissioned last year by Public Health England, recommended that office workers spend two to four hours on their feet each day.2

A team of Cochrane researchers looked at 20 studies that assessed the effect of different strategies to encourage people to reduce the amount of time they spend sitting at work. The studies included 2174 participants from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Nine studies looked at physical workplace changes, two at policy changes, seven at information and counselling, and two at multiple interventions.

Sit-stand desks, in particular, have become popular. However, the researchers found that only very low quality evidence from three non-randomised studies and low quality evidence from three randomised studies showed that they offered health benefits. The team concluded, “It remains unclear if standing can repair the harms of sitting because there is hardly any extra energy expenditure.”

The three randomised trials included 218 participants and found that people reduced their sitting time by 30 minutes to two hours when they used sit-stand desks, compared with when they used conventional desks during the working day. Sit-stand desks also decreased the total sitting time at work and outside work, and they reduced the duration of sitting episodes lasting more than 30 minutes. Sit-stand desks were not linked to harmful effects, such as musculoskeletal pain or varicose veins, or to a decrease in productivity.

The researchers found low quality evidence that counselling may lead to a modest reduction in sitting time, of around 30 minutes on average. Other interventions aimed at reducing inactivity, such as taking a walk during breaks at work, did not change the length of sitting time at work.

Overall, the quality of evidence was low for most of the interventions reviewed, mainly because the studies were poorly designed and had recruited small numbers of participants, the researchers said.

The study’s lead author, Nipun Shrestha, of the Health Research and Social Development Forum in Kathmandu, Nepal, said, “Given the popularity of sit-stand desks in particular, we think that people who are considering investing in sit-stand desks and the other interventions covered in this review should be aware of the limitations of the current evidence base in demonstrating health benefits.”

Jos Verbeek, coauthor, from the Cochrane Work Review Group in Kuopio, Finland, said, “It is important that workers who sit at a desk all day take an interest in maintaining and improving their wellbeing both at work and at home. However, at present, there is not enough high quality evidence available to determine whether spending more time standing at work can repair the harms of a sedentary lifestyle.

“Standing instead of sitting hardly increases energy expenditure, so we should not expect a sit-stand desk to help in losing weight. It’s important that workers and employers are aware of this, so that they can make more informed decisions.”


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