It made sense at the time. If sitting for hours a day is linked to obesity, heart disease and early death, then surely standing or walking while working could help office-goers protect themselves from these health maladies.
But a new analysis found that it’s still unclear whether standing or treadmill desks have any positive effect at all on health. What's more, it’s not even clear whether having these new kinds of desks significantly reduces the amount of time a person sits during the work day.
The analysis of 20 previous studies -- together including a total of 2,174 participants -- was conducted by Cochrane, a prestigious global network of independent scientists who evaluate the quality of research and parse scientific evidence into digestible recommendations. They found there are too few studies and studies with too few participants, making a solid recommendation for standing or walking desks impossible.
What's more, they concluded, most of the studies were too poorly designed to provide conclusive evidence even if their numbers had been sufficient.
"With the available evidence, I would say people should not expect to reduce weight using [a] sit-stand desk, as there is hardly any extra energy expenditure," Nipun Shrestha, a scientist with the Health Research and Social Development Forum in Nepal and corresponding author for the Cochrane review told HuffPost. "People need to do exercises both at work and outside work in addition to standing."
Here’s what the research really says about four efforts to cut down on sitting time:
1. Your standing desk doesn't do enough.
Studies say: Having a sit-stand desk decreased workplace sitting an average of 30 minutes to two hours every day. It also reduced total sitting time and the length of "sitting episodes" that last 30 minutes or longer, both at work and at home.
What it means: For anyone keeping track of these sorts of things, a 150-pound person standing for 30 minutes burns about 75 calories, while sitting burns about 56 calories. For scale, an apple is about 95 calories.
Seems promising, right? Yes and no. The Cochrane reviewers note that office workers need to stand two to four hours a day to combat sitting problems, so the 30 minutes to two hours provided by the standing desk is insufficient.
What's more, most of the studies only followed up with participants for three to six months, which isn't long enough to assess any long-term effects. And the slight bump in calories burned is so small as to be almost insignificant for overall health.
"It remains unclear if standing can repair the harms of sitting because there is hardly any extra energy expenditure," they note.
2. Treadmill desks and other 'active' workstations are based on very little evidence.
Studies say: People who used treadmill desks and also received information about the dangers of sitting reduced their sitting time by about 29 minutes after three months compared to those who got neither, while pedaling workstations combined with the counseling only reduced sitting time by about 12 minutes after four months, compared to those who got only information.
What it means: The researchers said, overall, that the quality of evidence for active workstations was low. And like the standing desks, these aren't enough active minutes to combat a day of sitting.
3. Walking during breaks is nice, but it doesn't fix your sitting problem.
Studies say: People who made a point of walking during their break time only decreased their sitting time 16 minutes after 10 weeks and 17 minutes after 21 weeks.
What it means: Walking during a break didn't change sitting habits for any significant amount of time.
4. Computer prompts can get you standing, but standing alone isn't enough to combat the effects of sitting.
Studies say: Two studies that involved software that prompted workers to stand or walk did not reduce sitting times, while another study with computer prompts managed to reduce sitting time by 55 minutes. Prompts that asked workers to stand up reduced sitting 14 minutes longer than prompts that asked them to walk.
What it means: Researchers said computer prompting software had an "inconsistent" effect on sitting times. Overall, these prompts didn’t change sitting sessions that lasted for 30 minutes or longer.
Perhaps most depressing (but not surprising) of all, combining all these different strategies from multiple categories produced no differences between the intervention group who tried to reduce sitting and the control group who didn’t, one year out.
Dr. Jos Verbeek, another of the Cochrane scientists who reviewed the evidence, told NPR that standing desks are not proven to protect health, and may be mere fashion.
Shrestha also pointed out to HuffPost that standing for hours on end is not only unrealistic for the injured and the elderly, but it can also result in an increased risk of varicose veins and "a feeling of tiredness at the end of the day."
If you resisted the peer pressure to buy a pricey standing desk, you can be smug in the knowledge the body of scientific evidence is on your side -- for now. It's too early to tell whether the standing desk can have a positive effect on health, Shrestha explained, and scientists need larger, properly designed studies over the course of at least a year to see if sit-stand desks are worth the extra cost.
But if you’re one of the early adopters who has already invested in a sit-stand desk or a treadmill desk, don’t fret. The study review concluded that there’s very little evidence they improve health or change behavior over the long-term, but that doesn’t mean these interventions harm health -- maybe just your wallet.