CNN Claims ‘Weak Science’ For Standing Desk Recommendations

10 October 2018

A CNN.com article casting doubt on the value of standing desks made waves on the internet a few weeks ago, getting re-posted by a number of other media outlets. The article, Standing desk recommendations based on weak science, was written by the makers of the TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, a show aimed at debunking popular ‘myths’.

We, of course, know the evidence supports the benefits of height-adjustable desks and standing at work, so we thought the article deserved a response. We actually agree with several of their points, but let’s get the questionable stuff out of the way first.


What CNN Got Wrong

Most people don’t recommend standing all day.

The article sets up its argument with the false premise that, “Proponents [of standing desks] claim that eliminating sitting from your work life is almost as beneficial a health choice as quitting smoking.”

Now, when sitting first earned the title “the new smoking,” there was a certain knee-jerk reaction toward sitting as little as possible. In fact, one writer was even paid to run a self-experiment in which he avoided all sitting for an entire month. He doesn’t recommend it, however, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who does.

Most experts agree that sitting for long periods is as bad for you as smoking, and sitting less is generally a good thing. However, what most standing desk proponents actually recommend is changing between sitting, standing, and moving throughout the day.


“Little evidence”

Citing a meta-analysis of studies on the effects of standing desks and other approaches to reducing sitting time, the article claims the researchers “found little evidence that standing or treadmill desks have any health benefits.”

That’s a bit of a stretch.

First of all, these researchers looked at 20 different studies, all of which presented some evidence of health benefits.

As for the amount of evidence, here’s what the report actually says:

“At present there is very low to low quality evidence that sit‐stand desks may decrease workplace sitting…Sit‐stand desks alone decreased workplace sitting with about half an hour to two hours per day…Sit‐stand desks also reduced total sitting time (both at work and outside work) and the duration of sitting episodes that last 30 minutes or longer.”

This means that there is evidence—it’s just not enough to be conclusive. While more research is needed, the report indicates that sitting less is a good idea and that the available research shows that standing desks can be an effective part of making that happen.


 Double standard

While disregarding the evidence from the small studies from the meta-analysis, which show likely benefits of standing desks, the article holds up a different small study to further its own case.

Here’s the backstory—some standing desk proponents have claimed that standing at work can burn up to 1000 extra calories per week, because of this study, which calculated a burn of nearly 60 more calories per hour for standing over sitting. The CNN article refutes that claim, citing a new study showing that standing only burns 8 more calories per hour than sitting.

There are a couple of problems here.

First off, the newer study is no more valid than the previous one. Both studies found what they found, but neither is definitive.

Second, to make the newer study sound more legitimate, the CNN article claims it was done by Harvard. It wasn’t—it was simply mentioned in a post on the Harvard Health Publishing blog, which, by the way, still highlights many other benefits of standing desks.

The new study was also small-scale and limited in scope. It looked at a handful of people in a lab for short 15-minute timeframes, whereas the prior study looked at people over full afternoons in a real office environment (and, interestingly, it also showed a positive blood sugar regulation effect from standing after lunch).

What’s the ultimate truth about how much energy is used by standing vs sitting? Nobody really knows. But using one small bit of research to disregard the findings of another study does a disservice to everyone trying to figure out that truth so we can live out our lives in good health.


What CNN Got Right

Alright, so now that we’ve picked the bones we needed to, let’s look at what we can all agree on about healthy work habits.

As CNN itself actually reported previously, people sit too much, and that’s bad for them. It will increase your risk of disease, misery, and early death. So get off your butt.

Standing still all day is not much better than sitting all day, possibly contributing to heart disease, varicose veins, and chronic pain. We’re just not made to be still for long periods of time in any position.

For health, happiness, and longevity, moving throughout the day is essential. According to one study, even a two-minute walk every hour may yield profound improvements for your body.

As Science Daily quoted lead author Srinivasan Beddhu, M.D. about this finding, “‘It was fascinating to see the results because the current national focus is on moderate or vigorous activity. To see that light activity had an association with lower mortality is intriguing.’”

Moving throughout the day is essential, as the CNN article in question affirms, quoting “chair expert” Galen Cranz, who said, “’The best posture is the next posture.’” Now if only there were a desk setup that would make it easy to change positions…Oh, wait….


Standing Desks For the Win

Can a piece of furniture guarantee a change in behavior? Of course not—a sit-stand desk left in the sit position all day probably isn’t going to do much good. But, setting up the physical conditions for change is one of the best ways to effectively instill better habits like sitting less and moving more.

Standing desks can be a great part of having a healthier work environment, supporting people in avoiding the dangers of too much sitting. In order to be of most value, of course, they have to be used effectively.

Proponents recommend easing into standing and using reminders to change position throughout the day. Use timersapps, or buddies to remind yourself to change positions or move.

Adopt healthy habits to go with your sit-stand desk. Practice exercises that support healthier posture. Schedule movement breaks right into your daily planner. Go bug your colleagues in person instead of sending an email. Drink more water so you have to go to the bathroom more (and actually go—don’t be a martyr and hold it!).

And of course, don’t believe everything you see on the internet.