We spend a lot of our day just … sitting.

If you work in an office, chances are that you’re sitting more than you’re moving around. In fact, Americans sit an average of 9.3 hours a day. For most, that’s more time than we spend sleeping! Many studies suggest that sitting for long periods has a bad effect on your health, leading to obesity and poor posture. Can using a standing desk help?

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Is Sitting Bad for Your Health?

We all know that smoking is bad for our health, but who would have thought that a sedentary lifestyle could be damaging in many of the same ways that smoking cigarettes is. Scientists believe that people who sit more than six hours a day are at greater risk of developing serious health issues.The American Cancer Society studied 123,000 Americans over the course of fourteen years and found that women who sat at least six hours/day were 40% more likely to die during that period than those who sat less than three hours/day. Men were 20% more likely. Prolonged sitting causes many short-term and long-term effects, as well as many health-related issues, including:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • High glucose levels
  • Excess body fat (particularly around the waist)
  • Higher cholesterol levels
  • 125 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk of colon, breast, prostate and lung cancer

Taking Care of Your Back

Sitting also affects our spines. In fact, sitting puts 40% more pressure on your spine than standing — and if you slump or slouch, it’s even worse. When blood is not circulating and feeding your muscles, the spinal bones can be weakened. This can also lead to an increased risk of osteoporosis and other problems, such as disc degeneration and pinched nerves.

While sitting at the office may be inevitable, there are several things you can do to take the stress off your spine — get your body moving to better health.

  • Get the angles right: Adjust the height of your desk chair to ensure a right angle at the knees, and sit up straight so you have a right angle with your waist/back and your arms extend with right angles at your elbows. You can even support your lower back with a small pillow or pad.
  • Look straight ahead: The top of your computer screen should be level with your eyes, so you’re only looking down about 10 degrees to view the screen. If it’s lower, you’ll move your head downward, which can lead to back and neck pain.

Benefits of Standing Desks

Standing desks are exactly what they sound like — desks you can use while standing. Users typically stand during the workday, sometimes alternating sessions with seated breaks. Using a standing desk helps burn more calories than sitting at a desk — about 50 more per hour. Advocates of standing desks also say that they give users more energy and help productivity.

Other reported benefits of standing desks include:

Critics of standing desks say that poor sitting posture means poor standing posture. Standing desks alone may not resolve this issue — they may only exacerbate backaches and stiffness in the legs. Standing desks have also been known to worsen varicose veins. They’re also not recommended if you’re pregnant, as standing for long periods can lower your baby’s birth weight.

If you’re wondering whether to switch to a standing desk, it may depend on your type of job. If you’re constantly moving around, you may find a standing desk easier. If you’re doing long and detailed work like math, you may prefer to be seated.

Acquiring a standing desk may require changes in your routine. If you plan on switching, keep in mind that you may have to:

  • Stop wearing heels or uncomfortable shoes.
  • Buy a mat to take pressure off of your feet.
  • Watch your posture more closely.
  • Ease yourself into it by building up your time standing.

“While you are standing, you still need to keep computer screens at eye level to prevent more neck issues,” Kevin M. Wong, MD, Westmoreland Family Medicine UPMC, said.

“Keep repetitive hand motions below elbow height to decrease cervical strain.” If a standing desk causes strain on your body, you might not be positioned correctly.

For Good Health, Movement Is Key

In the end, standing desks are a matter of preference — some may find the benefits, while others may tire after standing for long periods.

It’s important to watch the amount of sedentary time during the day. For every hour of sedentary activity (standing or sitting), be sure to take a ten or fifteen-minute break by moving around. This will help you stay focused — and keep your body moving.

Change your position frequently. Maybe that means instead of calling or emailing your co-worker on the other side of the office, take a walk to their desk. Another trick is to drink lots of water throughout the day so you can take periodic restroom breaks. And instead of taking the elevator, consider taking the stairs. However you make it work, get up and move.

Or, if you’re feeling really ambitious, try a treadmill or bicycle desk.

“You could also get a small set of pedals to place under a desk,” Dr. Wong adds. “Any of these — a treadmill desk, pedals, or laptop exercise bike — could be linked to a laptop. See how much exercise you can get using these items!” You can buy these at some sports stores or online.

“Can some smart IT person create an exercise bicycle with a laptop mount?” Dr. Wong said. “That would really be useful!”

For more information about staying healthy in an office job, check out UPMC HealthBeat’s article on staying active at work.

If you are suffering from back pain, call (877) 499-7746 (SPINE) or please complete this brief form. After an initial assessment of your condition is complete, your information will be reviewed by a medical professional and an appointment will be scheduled with the appropriate provider.

For more information, or to find a primary care doctor, visit UPMC Primary Care on the web or call 1-855-676-8762.

About Primary Care

A bond between doctor and patient can be extremely valuable, and that’s what you get with UPMC Primary Care. When you work with a primary care physician (PCP), you develop a lasting relationship. Your doctor will get to know you and your history and can plan your treatments accordingly. Our PCPs offer a variety of services, including preventive care and treatment for both urgent and chronic conditions.