Everything Science Knows Right Now About Standing Desks

Which active desk designs are best for your body and mind? Read on.

If it wasn’t already clear through common sense, it’s become painfully clear through science that sitting all day is terrible for your health. What’s especially alarming about this evidence is that extra physical activity doesn’t seem to offset the costs of what researchers call “prolonged sedentary time.” Just as jogging and tomato juice don’t make up for a night of smoking and drinking, a little evening exercise doesn’t erase the physical damage done by a full work day at your desk.


In response some people have turned to active desks—be it a standing workspace or even a treadmill desk—but the research on this recent trend has been too scattered to draw clear conclusions on its benefits (and potential drawbacks). At least until now. A trio of Canada-based researchers has analyzed the strongest 23 active desk studies to draw some conclusions on how standing and treadmill desks impact both physiological health and psychological performance.


What they found, broadly speaking, is that both types of active desks reduced sedentariness and improved mood without introducing too many workflow complications. More specifically, treadmill desks offered greater health benefits than standing desks did (hello, weight loss), but seemed to interfere more with productivity—at least initially. The researchers published their findings in a recent issue of the journal Preventive Medicine.

“Overall, current evidence suggests that both standing and treadmill desks may be effective in improving overall health considering both physiological and mental health components,” they conclude. Here’s a deeper look at what the researchers found.


Physiological Outcomes


The evidence sheds light on how active desks impact three measures of physiological health.

Baseline. On some baseline physiological measures, such as energy expenditure, both types of active desks showed clear benefits over sitting. Three studies of standing desks found that, on average, participants had an average heart-rate increase of more than 8 beats per minute. Not surprisingly, the impact of a treadmill was even greater here: in two studies, participants walking about 1 mph at their desk showed an average heart-increate of more than 12 beats a minute.

Cardiometabolic. Only one study has looked at how standing desks impact clinical metabolic risk factors; it found that a standing workstation could increase HDL cholesterol—aka “good” cholesterol. The encouraging evidence was a bit stronger for treadmill desks. In one study, participants spent nine months using a walking desk instead of their traditional sitter, and registered significant reductions in both total cholesterol and LDL (i.e. “bad”) cholesterol.


Weight loss and body size. The lone study looking at this health measure with regard to standing desks found that the 18 participants who used one for three months did lose weight, though they experienced no changes in body composition, such as body mass index. The treadmill evidence is again more compelling. In one year-long intervention that included lean, overweight, and obese workers, the 36 total participants lost an average of 3 to 7 pounds.

Recap. Using active desks has resulted in some clear physiological health benefits relative to sitting desks—with treadmill desks typically showing better outcomes than standing desks. That’s not a big surprise, given the extra exertion involved in walking. Still, treadmill desks showed “very strong” evidence in a number of physiological areas, including increased heart rate (three studies), glucose reduction (two studies), and decreased waist circumference (two studies). “Both standing and treadmill desks showed some promise of an ability for improving health outcomes with regular use,” conclude the researchers.


Psychological Outcomes

Photo: Jan Kempenaers

Now let’s look at what the research says about how active desks impact work performance and general cognitive functioning.

Work performance. Seven studies of standing desks, totaling 220 participants, found they had very little impact on typical work tasks—namely, typing. In one telling study, employees who used a sit-stand workstation for four hours a day during on work week had no significant difference in characters typed per minute or typing errors made when standing. Among the eight relevant treadmill studies, with 242 participants, some minor decreases in typing and mouse proficiency were detected.

Mood. Study participants who used active desks showed a clear mood boost. In one seven-week study of standing desk use, participants reported less fatigue, tension, confusion, and depression, and more vigor, energy, focus, and happiness—and when they went back to their old desks, their overall mood returned to baseline levels. The one small study of mood among treadmill desk users found a significant decrease in stress over a two-week period.


Cognitive function. Oddly enough, the survey researchers found no strong studies to date on how standing desks impact cognitive abilities. But the results of four studies on treadmill desks, with 167 total participants, were encouraging: they generally found no negative impact on things like information processing, reading, and attention (though one study found an impact on math problems). And a brand new study not included in the survey found that treadmill desks might actually provide improve memory and attention.

Recap. Using standing desks allowed for steady performance among employees who switched from sitting, and even made for happier workers. The best option for many workers might be a hybrid sit-stand workstation: it offers all the benefits of standing but avoids some of the new muscle aches that might emerge from standing all day. Treadmill desks did come with some work drawbacks in terms of typing performance, but the evidence suggests those diminished over time.


And since neither standing nor treadmill desks seemed to alter cognitive processes in a negative way, the researchers conclude that active desks “thus have no detrimental impact on the quality of work being produced.”

So the evidence suggests active desks are a win for the body and at least a push for the mind. Just make sure when you share the big news with your office manager, who just ordered a full roster of traditional desks, that he or she is sitting down.


About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014)


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