Stand Up For Your Health

Still need a good reason to unglue yourself from your work seat? Try this: A new study found that we burn more calories standing than sitting. Read on to learn why.

by Stephanie Stephens Health Writer

Have you noticed an uptick in the number of recent studies about the risks of sitting and the benefits of standing? Well, here’s one more: New research from Spain published in the journal PLOS ONE reinforces that we can all increase our energy expenditure—the number of calories we burn each day—when we stand. It also found that body composition, or how much fat we have on our bodies, could influence how much energy we expend.

The authors begin by acknowledging the role that being sedentary—meaning doing little to no physical activity—plays in modern society, and how it's helped create a public health burden. A take-it-easy lifestyle increases risk for death, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even cancer, they say. They make the common-sense deduction, also reliably backed by science, that the easiest way to cut sedentary time is to cut your sitting and lying down time.

They also say they undertook this smaller study to clarify differences in energy expenditure when people sit, lie down, or stand, citing previous studies' conflicting results about how large those differences really were. This team also chose to investigate energy expenditure when people changed positions, and to evaluate the role of anthropometric, or body size and shape measurements, along with body composition measurements, the distribution of body fat and amount of lean body mass, to determine those effects on energy expenditure.

Don't Take this Info Lying Down

To get the results, the research team measured energy expenditure differences in 55 young adults, ages 18 to 25—average age 21.7—and they found participants really did burn significantly more calories per minute when they stood, versus sitting or lying down—but no real differences were found between sitting and lying down. People with lean body mass, also defined as mass of the body minus fat, measured less difference between energy spent sitting instead of standing.

The researchers used a process called indirect calorimetry to measure that energy expenditure, by also measuring oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide produced. At the end of the day, their basic takeaway message is that for anyone to expend more energy, that is, burn more calories, they should spend more time standing.

It All Adds Up

As this study shows, small differences really can add up in the long run, but maybe you're thinking just having a standing desk at work, for example, gets you off the hook completely from doing more physical activity in general. Not quite.

Now, the idea is to stand more, but you can't "just stand around" all the time. A review published in Applied Ergonomics found that sit-stand desks effectively change behaviors and discomfort, but these changes only mildly affect health outcomes. "Use of a standing desk for three hours burns an extra 24 calories, about the same number of calories in a carrot,” notes Robert H. Schmerling, MD, a faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing. “But walking for just a half hour during your lunch break could burn an extra 100 calories each day."

The SMArT Work Trial intervention (Stand More AT Work), conducted in England, and published in the BMJ, "successfully reduced sitting time over the short, medium, and longer term, and positive changes were observed in work related and psychological health."

And about your brain: Using a standing desk might increase short-term task engagement without undermining work performance or productivity, says a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Why We Love Physical Activity

Just in case you needed a reminder, physical activity does so much for you, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shared. It…

  • Lowers risk of high blood pressure

  • Lowers risk of stroke

  • Improves aerobic fitness

  • Improves mental health

  • Improves cognitive function

  • Reduces arthritis symptoms

  • Prevents weight gain

If you wonder if you're moving enough, the CDC says kids and adolescents ages 6 to 17 need one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or the equivalent each week.

The American Heart Association recommends moving more at work. It's not hard, and you can if you:

  • Take the stairs. You may puff a bit at first, but you'll get stronger with each floor. Onward!

  • Get up as often as you can to stretch and bend. Get creative here.

  • Keep a few hand weights handy, or a resistance band, and sneak in a few reps when you remember. Write notes to yourself to remember.

  • Walk to the restroom, a coworker's desk, or the kitchen—taking the long way. Keep those sneakers in a drawer beside you for grabbing when the urge to take an even longer walk strikes.

  • Form a walking club for lunch and head outdoors for some invigorating fresh air and social connection. Have meetings during a group walk.

Finally, every time you're just "sitting around," ask yourself: "Can I get up and move, even just a little?" Chances are, you can!

Stephanie Stephens
Meet Our Writer
Stephanie Stephens

Stephanie Stephens is a very experienced digital journalist, audio/video producer and host who covers health, healthcare and health policy, along with celebrities and their health, for a variety of publications, websites, networks, content agencies and other distinctive clients. Stephanie was accepted to THREAD AT YALE for summer 2018 to author and produce an investigative series. She is also active in the animal welfare community.