If there’s one thing we’ve learned about sitting most of the day – or even most of the evening – it’s this: Sitting too much is bad news, even if you exercise. Numerous studies have linked prolonged sitting with obesity, heart disease, and increased risk of both getting cancer and dying from it.
Is standing more a solution to better health? For all the science on sitting, all the money spent on standing desks (and all the time spent on rigging homemade standing desks), it turns out there’s limited research to support the standing movement.
“There’s an investment in standing desks in workplaces and schools, but the benefits of standing haven’t been sufficiently documented,” says Kerem Shuval, PhD, director of physical activity and nutrition research at the American Cancer Society.
Shuval and colleagues set out to learn more about the role of standing in obesity, which is strongly associated with cancer risk. They also examined the impact of standing on metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors (including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and excess fat around the waist) that increase the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Their findings were recently published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings and provide a glimpse into the potential benefits of standing.
Using data from more than 7,000 adults who visited the Cooper Clinic in Dallas from 2010-2015, the researchers compared patients’ self-reported standing and physical activity habits with their odds of obesity and metabolic syndrome.
The data showed that increased standing time was not by itself associated with metabolic syndrome –but if you’re already physically active, standing more could potentially provide extra protection. For example, women who met physical activity guidelines (150 minutes/week of moderate activity, 75 minutes/week of vigorous activity, or a combination of both) and did not stand during the day were 47% less likely to have metabolic syndrome. In comparison, women who met the activity guidelines and also stood one-quarter to one-half the time were 71% less likely to have metabolic syndrome.
Standing time, meanwhile, was independently associated with obesity: Both men and women who stood more were less likely to be obese. The protective benefit of standing appeared to be even greater for people who were already getting the recommended amount of physical activity.
However, the researchers note their findings are preliminary and more prospective studies are needed to establish a causal relationship.
“We still don’t fully understand how much sitting is ‘safe’ or what you need to replace it with to achieve maximum health benefits,” says Alpa Patel, PhD, a cancer epidemiologist and strategic director of the Cancer Prevention Study-3 at the American Cancer Society. “Research to understand the role of sitting time or standing is still in its infancy, but this study adds more information to that unfolding story.”
Shuval adds that standing by itself may not be any better than sitting, “but if you’re standing and fidgeting, or standing and moving around, you’re increasing energy expenditure.” Put another way, you’re burning more calories that could become extra pounds. That’s important to cancer researchers because excess body weight contributes to as many as 1 out of 5 cancer-related deaths, and is strongly associated with an increased risk of colorectal, endometrial, esophageal, kidney, and pancreatic cancers, as well as breast cancer in women past menopause.
“Over the past 50 years, there’s been a drastic decrease in domestic, occupational, and transportation-related physical activity, while leisure time physical activity has been more or less the same,” Shuval says. “Since we all sit so many hours of the day, we’re looking for ways to decrease sitting and increase activity levels. Walk over to a colleague instead of emailing, take the stairs, and go for a walk during lunch. The idea is to sit less and move around more.”