After our posts on the efficacy of standing desks to reduce healthcare costs and improve productivity, there has been interest in identifying appropriate ways to increase energy expenditure (calories burned) while at work. It just so happens that a new study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health sought to identify ways to increase the number of calories an employee can burn in order to reduce the harmful effects of sedentary behavior. The study focused on quantifying the amount of calories burned while sitting, standing, and walking.
The researchers, who are affiliated with the Physical Activity and Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh, studied the calories burned from 74 healthy individuals that were mostly in their 20s and of normal weight. The volunteers were randomly assigned to four groups:
- Group 1: Asked to sit and type at a computer for 15 minutes and then stand up for 15 minutes.
- Group 2: Asked to sit for 15 minutes and watch TV and then walk at a gentle, strolling pace on a treadmill for 15 minutes.
- Group 3: Asked to stand for 15 minutes and then sit down for 15 minutes.
- Group 4: Asked to walk on the treadmill for 15 minutes and then sit down for 15 minutes.
While standing, participants were asked to avoid moving or fidgeting as much as possible.
Participants burned about 20 calories while sitting for 15 minutes, regardless of whether or not they were typing or watching TV. Surprisingly, standing only burned an extra two calories per 15 minutes compared to sitting down. The calories burned were not impacted by what the participant did prior to sitting or standing. Total caloric expenditure was about the same.
Despite the hype and the known benefits of standing, it does not appear that standing desks are a good intervention to burn more calories. The extra calories burned from standing for hours a day would only offset a very light snack.
As expected, walking had a very different impact. 15 minutes of walking resulted in about three times as many calories burned as sitting or standing. Walking for an hour would burn 130 more calories than sitting or standing for the same amount of time.
The takeaway for employers is to reconsider why they are purchasing standing desks and create ways to promote walking. We still recommend standing, but it needs to be supplemented with other physical activities throughout the day. Moving the printer across the office, scheduling walking meetings, and organizing wellness challenges are just a few ways to help facilitate movement during the workday.