Height-adjustable desks are growing in popularity in office settings, but there’s still no hard evidence that they improve the health of office workers, according to a new review of existing research.
Indeed, there has been very little research testing whether people using the desks spend less time sitting, or if they do, whether that improves their mental or physical health, researchers say.
"There was some evidence that people sit less and stand more" if they have height-adjustable workstations, said Garry Tew, a research fellow at the University of York in the UK who led the study.
But, he told Reuters Health by email, his team's study found little good evidence that the reductions in sitting time resulted in health benefits, such as reduced weight and reduced cardiovascular risk.
Sitting for long periods of time has been linked to an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death, even among people who exercise regularly. Yet employees in administrative and professional/managerial occupations often sit for more than three-quarters of their total time at work, the study authors note.
Strategies are needed to help reduce the amount of time people spend at their desks sitting, Tew said, because in theory it would benefit different aspects of health, and potentially have a positive effect on productivity.
For the analysis, published in Occupational Medicine, Tew and his team looked at some 9,000 studies and identified just five that compared office workers who used height-adjustable desks to those who didn’t.
All five studies reported that using height-adjustable workstations reduced workplace sitting time. But all were small, involving at most 44 people, and all might have been biased in favor of finding benefits.
As a result, Tew’s team writes, they were unable to reach any conclusions about the effects of the desks.
"The health benefits of less time spent sitting depend on what you replace the sitting time with, for example, standing, light movement, moderate activity, vigorous activity," Tew said, adding that in the workplace context, it is likely more feasible to displace sitting time with standing or light activity.
"In my opinion, standing is probably only marginally better than sitting, and . . . moderate-to-vigorous purposeful exercise is a much better strategy for improving general fitness and health," he said. "So, with all other aspects of lifestyle remaining unchanged, installing a height adjustable workstation will likely have minimal effects on important health outcomes and is highly unlikely to be an effective weight loss promotion strategy."
Tew noted, however, that there may be other benefits of using the adjustable workstations. For example, they allow workers to change posture regularly, and that may help avoid musculoskeletal problems from prolonged sitting.
"However, again there is currently little good evidence that using these devices benefits musculoskeletal health in both the short and long term," Tew cautioned.