A new study says you’ll burn more calories at a standing desk. But will it ruin your recovery?
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Many experts blame sitting for our society’s weight problem and its many associated health effects. People spend more time sitting than ever before. As a result we burn fewer calories and gain more weight.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Montreal published a study that looked at changes in calorie intake, activity level, and obesity rates in Canada between 1972 and 2004. They found that, while people were eating slightly less and were slightly more active in 2004, the obesity rate was also 10 percent higher. The authors speculated that people got fatter despite eating less and exercising more because of a shift toward more sedentary jobs over that 22-year period—in other words, because people were sitting more.
A new study out of the University of Minnesota hints at the potential to reverse this problem in the simplest way possible. Twenty student volunteers spent 45 minutes solving math problems at either of two desks: a traditional desk at which they worked in a seated position and a standing desk with no chair. Exhaled gases were collected to determine the rate of calorie burning in the two situations. The researchers found that the students burned 35 percent more calories when standing then when sitting.
Naturally, the authors of this study, which was published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, recommend standing desks for everyone based on these results. But do runners and other heavy exercisers really need them?
The answer is not as simple as you might assume. Other studies have provided evidence that the negative effects of sitting on body weight and metabolism may offset the positive effects of exercise. For example, a 2009 study led by Peter Katzmarzyk at Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that the more time people spent sitting daily, the greater their risk was for dying of cardiovascular disease, regardless of how much they exercised.
Some scientists have speculated that one of the reasons exercise is seldom as effective for weight loss in practice as it is in theory is that people tend to unconsciously compensate for increases in exercise activity by moving less outside of workouts. A number of studies have explored this possibility, and the emerging consensus is that such compensation typically occurs only among the elderly. Nevertheless, it’s something to be mindful of, even if you’re young.
Experts are increasingly advising people to make daily efforts to reduce sitting time and increase daily activity outside of exercise. But anyone who’s ever stood in line all day waiting for a chance to try out for American Idol knows how trashed the legs feel after hours on one’s feet. Sure, working at a standing desk might burn a few more calories in the day, but what if those calories come at the cost of compromised recovery and reduced running performance?
This is a legitimate concern. While the question of the effect of long periods of standing on post-exercise recovery has received little attention, one study found that even five minutes of lying down after a high-intensity cycling bout improved nervous system performance in a second bout compared to standing.
There may be a happy medium between continuing to sit whenever you’re not training and taking the risk of trying to adapt to working at a standing desk. Here are three simple ideas to try:
Set a daily TV watching limit. How much television do you watch in a typical day? Two hours? Try setting a limit of 90 minutes a day.
Don’t sit for more than 30 minutes at a time. For example, at work, get up from your desk every 30 minutes and do something—walk over to the water cooler, visit a friend’s cubicle—for at least one minute.
Find ways to walk more. For example, treat the family dog to longer walks, schedule walking meetings with coworkers, and start practicing that old trick of parking at the far end of the lot at the office, stores, and other places you drive to.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.