Musculoskeletal researcher Dr. Jack Callaghan has a low opinion of the public alarm surrounding sitting at work. “It’s amazing what an impact the media has had on this. Ten years ago, nobody cared about sitting in the office, and now all of a sudden it’s this massive thing,” he says.
When asked if sitting is bad for you, he concurs that the evidence points to that. “Where it starts to fall apart,” he says, “is where you divide out work sitting time and total sitting time. This ‘sitting at work is killing you’ thing — there’s not a lot of evidence for that. It’s more total sitting. It’s more a lifestyle comment. Do you sit all day at work? Do you drive your car? Do you sit at home on the couch?”
Callaghan states that it’s fine to sit for around 10 hours a day total and up to eight hours at work. The maximum time you should spend standing at work, however, is only four hours because standing too long is actually more detrimental to your health. The negative impacts of prolonged standing range from varicose veins to cardiovascular disease to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like back pain. “The association of standing and negative MSD outcomes is far greater than the association of sitting and back pain for example … We don’t want to just blindly substitute and have people standing all day,” Callaghan says.
He believes the healthiest strategy is to switch between sitting and standing for the pragmatic reason that if you want to reduce sitting you have to be doing something else. “I think standing is a great office intervention, because it’s an easy place to get people to change behaviour. It’s hard to get people to stop going home and sitting on the couch and watching a movie: you have no power to intervene there. Work is an easy place to get people to change behaviours. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘easy.’ It’s not easy, but it’s a more direct route to apply an intervention,” he says.
When it comes to how much time you should spend sitting versus standing, Callaghan suggests a one-to-one ratio for a number of reasons. For one, he advises aiming high because “most people won’t get there.” Additionally, based on ergonomic guidelines, you shouldn’t be standing longer than four hours — a one-to-one ratio fits nicely into an eight-hour workday. A four-hour reduction in sitting also pushes you into a better health category. Finally, he states that based on the work they’ve done in the lab investigating how long people can tolerate standing, people’s tolerance also falls into that one-to-one ratio.
Perhaps even more important, he tells us, is how you distribute those four hours. He suggests rotating every 15–20 minutes. If this seems crazy, he says that you can stand for longer periods, but that you should work up to it the same way you might train for a marathon, and avoid ever standing longer than 45 minutes at a stretch.
For workplaces wanting to implement some sort of sit-to-stand program, he emphasizes that education is the key to success. If you plan to introduce sit-to-stand workstations, you have to train people how to properly use them. You also have to get people to buy in, telling them why you’re doing it and what the benefits are. Then you must follow up, because if people are having problems they’re going to stop using them.