New findings even indicate that regular exercise may not counteract the negative health issues associated with prolonged periods of daily sitting.
With sitting once labeled a “lethal activity” by Dr. James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic, and with the top contemporary jobs requiring hours upon hours of face time in front of a computer screen, the situation may seem hopeless.
Workers today burn fewer calories at work than their counterparts from decades past, mainly because the good jobs in the information age often involve sitting in front of a stationary computer screen for the entire day.
The fact is that desk jobs pay better than jobs that put you on your feet all day. According to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top-paid US workers sit for an average of six hours per workday.
Their findings showed a direct correlation between a person’s annual salary and the number of hours that they spend working at a desk.
Given all the facts, it might sometimes feel like you’re being forced to choose between your career and your good health. Thankfully, an ergonomic answer for the beleaguered and desk-bound modern worker exists in the form of the standing desk.
Numerous studies in recent years have tied the regular use of a stand-up desk to decreased risks of obesity, diabetes, colon cancer and many other serious medical maladies. As our work and leisure lives revolve more and more around screens, sit-to-stand desks have become an essential part of every health-conscious home and office.
That’s a major reason why more workers in desk-bound professions are taking a stand for their long-term health by switching to a standing desk. Employers are also recognizing that height adjustable desks can increase productivity, reduce medical costs and boost worker satisfaction across the board.
Of course, if regular use of an adjustable height desk decreases your risk for obesity, then it is logical to assume that standing at work burns more calories than sitting at work.
This is indeed true, but how many more calories does standing burn as opposed to sitting? How have different studies tried to answer that question? How does the calorie burn associated with sitting and standing compare with the calorie burn of other activities like walking and running and gardening?
Finally, if the act of standing doesn’t burn enough calories on its own, are there any ways that you can increase the calories you burn while working at your standing desk?
First things first: what is a calorie?
Unfortunately, calories are not something that you can pick out of your food like raisins from a potato salad. A calorie is a unit of energy that measures the amount of energy stored in food.
The “calories” that most of us are familiar with, the kind that we read on nutrition labels, are technically called “kilocalories.” One kilocalorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.
Contrary to their bad reputation, food calories are good for us. They provide essential energy to our bodies, giving us the fuel that we need to remain healthy and active. However, if you consume more calories than you burn off through physical activity, those excess calories get stored in the body as fat.
That’s why a balanced diet and regular activity are essential to maintaining our long-term physical, emotional and mental health.
Why do people disagree about the calories burned by standing desks?
Hundreds of studies have attempted to measure the calories burned by standing instead of sitting. Due to differences in the subjects and the scientific methods involved in those studies, the results have varied widely.
There is one consistent finding: day-after-day spent passively sitting is one of the worst things that we can do to our bodies. Any activity at all, even standing still, is better for us than sitting.
However, while the act of standing certainly burns more calories than the act of sitting, there have been profound disagreements about how many more calories are burned. Some widely reported studies on the subject have been questioned or discredited due to their limited scope, small sample size or lack of controls.
One widely reported study by the University of Iowa in 2015 found that workers who used adjustable standing desks typically stood one hour per day more than their sitting-only colleagues and that they burned 87 extra calories per day.
Many people took these findings to mean that sit stand desks burn 87 calories per hour. However, a good amount of that additional calorie burn was because stand up desk users also walked an average of six minutes more per day at work than those who used a traditional, non-ergonomic sit-down desk.
Although the standing desk probably deserves credit for encouraging movement and enhancing energy in those workers, walking burns more than twice as many calories as either sitting or standing.
How many calories are really burned by standing?
A 2017 analysis published in the journal Circulation gives us the most up-to-date and widely accepted estimate of the calorie burn that comes from standing.
Doctors in that analysis looked at nearly seven hundred existing energy expenditure studies, selected the 44 most scientifically sound of the bunch, and then averaged them all together. By aggregating dozens of credible studies rather than relying on potential outliers, we get the most accurate and universal results.
As it turns out, you shouldn’t necessarily cancel your gym membership just yet.
While standing at your desk absolutely encourages blood flow in your body, activates the muscles in your legs and burns more calories than sitting down, standing still doesn’t force those muscles to burn that many more calories than sitting.
The Circulation study found that standing burns about two extra calories per fifteen minutes than sitting down at a computer for that same amount of time.
This averages out to an additional eight calories burned every hour that we are standing instead of sitting down at our desks. Meanwhile, sitting and watching TV burns even fewer calories – passive sitting burns four fewer calories per hour than sitting while working.
Of course, every study has its limitations and detractors (some studies “prove” that standing desks boost all forms of productivity, while other studies “prove” that standing desks mainly boost productivity for tasks related to creative thinking), and new and conflicting research is released all the time.
How do the calories burned by sitting and standing at desks compare to the calories burned by other activities?
According to the research published in Circulation, sitting down at a desk burns roughly 20 calories per fifteen minutes, while standing at a desk burns about 22 calories per fifteen minutes.
Sitting and standing while working burn more calories than sleeping or passively sitting, but how do they compare to other activities, such as cooking, gardening, or playing hopscotch with your kids?
Here is a breakdown of the average calories that various physical activities burn over the course of fifteen minutes:
- Sleeping: 11.5 calories
- Sitting and watching TV: 18.66 calories
- Sitting and working: 19.63 calories
- Standing and working: 21.92 calories
- Walking: 55.9 calories
- Downhill skiing or waterskiing: 111.5 calories
- Basketball: 149 calories
- Running: roughly 200 calories, depending on your speed
The above results for sitting, standing and walking came from the analysis published in Circulation, while the other totals were provided by Harvard Medical School, and indicate the average calorie burn for a 155-pound person.
Keep in mind that these numbers are only averages and that we all burn calories differently based on our individual size, metabolism and gender. For example, due to differences in muscle mass, standing men burn twice as many calories on average as standing women.
Does standing at work count as exercise?
The British Journal of Sports Medicine recommends that desk workers stand for at least two hours a day. Given that standing up burns eight more calories per hour than sitting, spending two-plus hours working at a standing desk could only burn about twenty extra calories per day.
That difference might seem measly at first – at that rate, it would take an entire workweek to burn off the calories found in a single red apple – but with regular use, the benefits stack up over time. One hundred extra calories burned every workweek becomes 5,000 extra calories burned every work year.
And even if standing desks are not exactly the exercise machine of the future, they still offer a plethora of other health benefits to users that encourage additional activity outside of the office: alleviated back pain, improved blood sugar control, lowered blood pressure, increased energy, improved attitude and a lot more.
On the other hand, if you suffer from low energy and chronic back pain because you cram yourself into an anti-ergonomic sit-down desk and chair all day every day, you become far less likely to do the real calorie-burning activities like walking, running, and playing basketball once the workday is done.
How can you increase the calories that you burn at a standing desk?
As we have seen, standing at work does burn more calories than sitting, but the difference in energy expenditure between the two is relatively small when compared to other physical activities.
That said, there are plenty of ways that you can increase the calories that you burn at your standing desk without interrupting your workflow.
1) DON’T BE AFRAID TO FIDGET
If you want a little extra boost to your calorie burn, just ignore everything that your parents and teachers ever taught you about sitting (or standing) still.
Yes, it turns out that fidgeting is good for our bodies. A recent study even found that fidgeting while sitting at your desk burns more calories than standing still at your desk.
The benefits of regular squirming only grow more pronounced when you are on your feet. People burn 30 extra calories per hour when they are standing and fidgeting then when they are sitting and fidgeting.
Regular movement keeps the blood flowing and the calories burning, so shift around in your seat, twitch whenever you get the chance, and twiddle as your health depended on it.
2) GET A MINI-EXERCISE TRAINER
It is no longer necessary to choose between doing your desk work and doing your daily cardio.
Small-sized exercise trainers help you burn additional calories at your desk, no matter whether you are sitting or standing. You can use a miniature bicycle machine to pedal while you are sitting, and a miniature elliptical machine to get your steps in while standing.
3) STRETCH REGULARLY TO STAY LOOSE
Do some calf and leg raises while sitting down, then do some deep knee bends or lunges while standing up. Stay limber and loose to prevent muscle fatigue and you will have no trouble standing at your desk for several hours a day.
4) TAKE REGULAR SHORT BREAKS
People who work at desks should take a short break and move around for a couple of minutes every half an hour. Regular movement is the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves, so push yourself away from the desk and move around at least once every thirty minutes.
5) USE A CALORIE COUNTER
Find an online calorie counter or a fitness app and track the hours that you spend sitting and standing every day. This will not only inform you how many calories you burn when standing, but it will also remind you to shift between sitting and standing positions throughout the day.
6) DO CHAIR EXERCISES
If you’re not afraid to turn your office into an Olivia Newton-John video, find a chair aerobics workout and start building up a real sweat. A sturdy and supportive ergonomic chair will only enhance your workout.