Man standing at desk with green and beige background

Sitting Is the New Smoking. Can a Standing Desk Help You Live Longer?

Get off your ass (doctor’s orders).

Back in the ’60s, more than 40 percent of Americans smoked. Sixty years later, most people have kicked the habit in pursuit of a longer lifespan—fewer than 14 percent of adults lit up as of 2018. But there’s another healthspan detractor that’s been hiding in plain sight pretty much the entire time: sitting. Yes, simply sitting is bad for your health.

Within the last few years, Americans have increased time sitting by four to seven hours per day. This is thanks in part to the pandemic, which limited many activities and forced in-person work to go digital. While many parts of this new era are beneficial (flexible working environments, the ability to travel more often, etc.), we’ve become accustomed to sitting for 10+ hours a day without a thought. 

That puts your health at risk, even if you diligently hit the gym. Researchers from Finland found that “active couch potatoes”—people who exercised for 30 minutes a day but who sat non-stop for the other 10 to 12 hours—had elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and body fat (1). 

How to Combat the Effects of Sitting

It seems simple: Don’t sit as often. Just getting up from your computer for a few minutes every hour can help you reap major health benefits.

That’s where the standing desk comes in. Do you really need one? And what are the benefits? All of that below.

The Benefits of Standing Desks

Standing Burns More Calories

If you’ve ever worked a job where you’re on your feet the entire shift, you understand how physically demanding it is. Substitute all that standing and walking with sitting for hours on end, and you’re bound to notice some changes like lethargy and weight gain.

Standing burns more calories than sitting—174 additional calories per afternoon according to one study (2). Multiply that by five days, and you burn an average of 870 extra calories per week simply by standing for a few hours per day. The only exception? Adding soleus pushups (a simple seated move known to boost your metabolism) to your sitting time.

Boosts Energy, Mood, and Focus

Ever hear the phrase “movement is medicine,” or notice a positive mood shift after taking a quick walk? There’s scientific evidence to support those claims. Studies show that there’s a link between sedentary time and an increased risk of depression and anxiety (3, 4).

Standing desks directly affect the cause. One study followed participants on a seven-week standing desk journey. Compared to participants who sat all day, those who stood for 66 minutes per day reported less stress and fatigue and improved mood (5).

Improves Posture and Reduces Back Pain

Pause and observe your posture, right now. Hunching over a computer (or cell phone) is the reason many office workers complain of back pain throughout the day. Most desk setups are just not ergonomic.

Several studies on desk workers with long-term back pain have found positive improvement from swapping in a standing desk. In one study, participants reported significant improvement in lower back pain after standing for 30-minute intervals for a few weeks (6). In another, sit-stand desks were found to reduce upper back and neck pain by 54 percent after a month of use (5). 

(As a human with back pain, who just got a sit-to-stand desk, I can assure you that it helps. Immensely.)

There is one caveat: if you suddenly go from sitting all day to standing for long periods of time, you may develop back (leg or foot) pain, rather than rid it. The fix, according to an article published by Harvard, is to ease into a standing desk setup. Use it for 30 to 60 minutes a day and gradually increasing it to build muscle and let your bones adjust. Experiment with different time intervals to find the one that works best for you.

It also goes without saying, that your standing desk setup needs to be ergonomically adjusted to your body. Position your screen at eye level (you may need a riser). Rest your forearms comfortably on the desktop without your shoulders hunching. Stand (in supportive shoes!), with your feet hip-width apart (no leaning to one side or popping your hip, which is just as bad as crossing your legs, per my chiropractor).

May Help You Live Longer

Three things you can pretty much guarantee to put yourself at greater risk for by sitting 10 hours per day: heart disease (7), obesity (8), and diabetes (9). All of which are leading causes of death in the U.S.

Not buying it? One review of 18 studies found those who sit more than stand are at a 49 percent greater risk of dying early (10).

Prolonged sedentary time is thought to increase the risk of heart disease by up to 147 percent and diabetes by 112 percent (10), while the number of extra calories burned standing vs. sitting directly impacts obesity (2). And as we mentioned above, it’s not something you can just exercise your way out of.

There is some hope: reducing sitting time to three hours per day could raise the average life expectancy by two years, according to a study published in 2012 (11). This means in addition to your daily exercise, you should be standing for nearly seven hours every day for a longer healthspan.

Ready to implement more standing into your daily routine? Here are five of the best standing desks for every budget.

The 5 Best Standing Desks

1. Farrahi V. et al. (2022). Joint Profiles of Sedentary Time and Physical Activity in Adults and Their Associations with Cardiometabolic Health
2. Buckley, J. P. et al. (2014). Standing-based office work shows encouraging signs of attenuating post-prandial glycaemic excursion.
3. Hamer, M., et al. (2014). Prospective study of sedentary behavior, risk of depression, and cognitive impairment.
4. Teychenne, M., et al. (2015). The association between sedentary behaviour and risk of anxiety: a systematic review.
5. Pronk, N. P. et al. (2012). Reducing occupational sitting time and improving worker health: the Take-a-Stand Project, 2011.
6. Thorp, A. A. et al. (2014). Breaking up workplace sitting time with intermittent standing bouts improves fatigue and musculoskeletal discomfort in overweight/obese office workers. 
7. Shiroma E. J. et al. (2010). Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health Lessons Learned From Epidemiological Studies Across Age, Gender, and Race/Ethnicity.
8. Biswas, A. et al. (2015). Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
9. Thorp, A. A. et al. (2014). Alternating bouts of sitting and standing attenuate postprandial glucose responses.
10. Wilmot, E. G. et al. (2012). Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis.
11. Katzmarzyk, P. T. et al. (2012). Sedentary behaviour and life expectancy in the USA: a cause-deleted life table analysis.