This article is re-posted from a Sedentary Behaviour Research Network blog post on 3rd July 2019.
Recently, research into the topic of excessive sitting, or “sedentary behaviour”, has been making headlines. The risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, that comes with high levels of sitting is becoming more evident (1). Office workers represent a population that spend a significant amount of time in sedentary pursuits as a consequence of their occupation (2). As more research is being published on the topic, many workplaces are seeking non-sedentary alternatives and solutions to the traditional office environment to keep their employees as healthy and productive as possible. One such solution has been the implementation of activity-permissive workstations.
Activity-permissive, or alternative, workstations replace a worker’s traditional desk and are broadly categorized into either standing desks or dynamic workstations. Standing desks allow for a worker to stand while performing a task (e.g., typing, clerical work), and can be installed as additions to an existing workstation, or as height-adjustable replacement units (see Figure 1). Dynamic workstations are designed to allow for activity or movement while working, and include a variety of alternative workstations, such as: treadmill desks, cycling desks, and dynamic sitting desks (e.g., yoga ball). However, regardless of the kind and category of alternative workstation, they all boast a potential reduction in occupational sedentary behaviour (3,4)
Despite the potential benefits of using alternative workstations in the office, many employers and employees are hesitant to incorporate them, citing a fear of possible lost or impaired productivity/performance (5). However, some of these fears may not have as much basis in actual evidence.
A systematic review study by members of the Exercise and Health Psychology Lab at Western University looked at the effects of alternative workstations on workplace productivity and performance in 63 studies (6). The study, published in Applied Ergonomics, focused on outcomes of productivity (typing, work-related tasks, mouse tasks, and absenteeism) and performance-related outcomes (memory, executive function, mathematics, presenteeism, reading comprehension). The authors found that the vast majority of studies that examined standing desks found no effect on productivity or performance measures.
However, the same neutral effects on these outcomes could not be said about dynamic workstations, like treadmill desks and cycling desks, which tended to slightly detract from productivity. On the upside, dynamic workstations also tended to benefit workplace performance outcomes, such as memory and executive functioning. The authors speculate that this trade-off could be a consequence of the activity involved in using a dynamic workstation, which could help to promote cognition (7,8), but impact the fine motor skills needed for tasks like typing or mouse work. However, further research into the long-terms effects on workplace productivity and performance of both standing and dynamic workstations was recommended. Dynamic sitting and stretching interventions in particular had relatively little evidence available, as did outcomes of creativity and psychomotor functioning.
So, if you (or your employer) are looking for a way to promote health and wellness in the office through reducing the amount of time spent sedentary, without compromising productivity or performance: consider a standing desk. They are a height-adjustable, and perhaps health-adjustable, way to stay productive.