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This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Trail Runner magazine.
You may have heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” But, while a sedentary lifestyle does have major risks, the benefits of standing desks are not as clear as that often-repeated quote suggests.
A review study in the Annals of Internal Medicine did conclude, “Prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.” According to the review, those deleterious outcomes include heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
However, as noted by Dr. Robert H. Shmerling in Harvard’s Health Blog, “Rigorous studies of standing desks have not yet been performed.” A review of 20 studies on standing desks in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found no significant benefits. So we know being sedentary all day isn’t good for you, but we don’t know if standing desks are the best way to achieve optimal health outcomes.
The conundrum faced by runners specifically is that training requires recovery, and time sitting at a desk doubles as healing and adaptation time from workouts. Standing is a stress that could reduce recovery or exacerbate existing injuries like plantar fasciitis due to increased pressure on the feet. And after a hard workout, eight to 10 hours on your feet might not be the most pleasant way to spend the day. Kenyan training camps are famous for involving lots of hard running interspersed with many hours of lying around.
On the other side of the ledger, standing desks increase metabolic rate because standing burns more calories than sitting. They may also contribute to those aforementioned health benefits and could reduce the risk of injuries like hip flexor tendinitis and Iliotibial Band Syndrome, which are caused by scrunching up your hip flexors like a pretzel all day.
Current research suggests that the key is to mix sitting and standing, rather than to view a standing desk as a magical elixir. It’s similar to nutrition—an apple a day may keep the doctor away, but a hundred apples a day may keep the doctor on speed dial. Even if you use a standing desk, be sure to walk around for a minute or two every half hour, do some foot circles and stretch.
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