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Standing at Work Is Healthy, But When Does It Become Harmful

Sitting has been demonized by the media so now the standing desk industry is booming. And while more and more people are using them, almost no one is talking about the dangers of standing for too long.

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For years now, experts and studies have been telling us to start standing more and have claimed that “sitting is the new smoking”. Sitting has been demonized by the media so now the standing desk industry is booming. And while more and more people are using them, almost no one is talking about the dangers of standing for too long. 

Standing desks aren’t new. In fact, Charles Dickens wrote some of his best works at a standing desk. Other great writers, composers, and statesmen have been using standing desks for the past two centuries, but they are solitary cases. Still, for the last decade, standing desks have suddenly become the new must-have for fitness enthusiasts with office jobs and for good reason. We already have numerous studies that tell us all about the benefits of the standing desks: relieves back pain, increases productivity and concentration, lowers the risk of heart disease, and weight gain; just to name a few. In other words, standing is something that everyone should start doing. 

How Long Should We Stand For?

For years, many claimed that we should have a 3:1 sit to stand ratio. This means that for every 3 minutes of sitting we should stand one, or better said, each hour you should spend 45 minutes sitting and 15 minutes standing. Nobody knows exactly where these numbers come from, but they are wrong, according to the University of Waterloo’s professor Jack Callaghan. As a professor in Waterloo’s Department of Kinesiology he is the first scientist to have ever conducted a study about the perfect standing time and the devastating effects on standing for too long. 

Enter the New Ratio

Professor Callaghan discovered that the ideal sit-stand ratio lies somewhere between 1:1 and 1:3. “Historically what has been preached is a three to one ratio, but we found the opposite will give you the benefits of not sitting as much, but not inducing problems from standing”, explains the professor. In other words, for each work-hour, you shouldn’t spend more than 45 minutes standing. 

The Risk of Standing for Too Long

The professor also found, in this first-ever laboratory-controlled study of sit-stand workstations, that, when asked to stand for 2 straight hours, about half of the participant developed lower back pain. According to the study results, workers who develop back pain from standing are 3 times more likely to experience chronic back problems later.

Ease into It

If you’re just starting with a standing desk, avoid going for the full 45 minutes from the start. Chances are, you won’t be able to stand for so long. The best thing to do is to ease into it. Start by standing for only a few minutes before switching back to a sitting position. Most users will need up to two months before being able to stand for 45 minutes straight, while some might not be able to do it even then. In that case, you should think about investing in some useful accessories, like an anti-fatigue mat. 

Move Often

According to professor Callaghan, the best thing you could do to avoid back pain is to move often and move early. “It’s the same concept as dehydration during exercise. If you wait until you’re thirsty it’s too late. If you wait until you have pain before you change positions, it’s too late. This pain is hard to get rid of, so you have to be moving and changing positions before it starts,” he says.

How to Get Rid of The Back Pain?

Although standing-induced back pain is difficult to get rid of, some core exercises had great results during the study: 

  • arm and leg extensions performed while quadruped (on hands and knees)
  • bridging in the prone (belly towards the floor) and supine (back towards the floor) position, commonly referred to plank and reverse planking
  • side planking with weight supported by the feet and forearm. 

Conclusion

Working at a standing desk is a great way to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but don’t overdo it. You shouldn’t work standing for more than 45 minutes per hour, and if you’re just starting you should do it for even less. According to a study conducted by professor Jack Callaghan at the University of Waterloo, standing for too long can lead to back pain and, in time, to chronic back problems.

Don’t forget to move, as often as possible, and if you can’t stand for too long, try investing in some useful accessories, like an anti-fatigue mat.

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