Standing Desk and Atherosclerosis - tuesday 2013-09-03 1034 last modified 2013-09-18 0746
Categories: Daily Grind
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I switched to a standing desk a couple weeks ago after building my first static iteration. Should I find the need to, I'll build one where I can change the height to switch uses. One of the questions I have about using a standing desk is where the healthy balance is between different postures. Sitting all the time is reported to take three years off your life, a claim I'll put off investigating too deeply for now; but standing for work may have drawbacks of its own.

So far I prefer standing, for making me more active and more tired at the end of the day, which seems more like it should be. I've also lost weight, which, to those of you who know me, was not necessary, but if it makes rock climbing that much easier on my hands, so much the better. Still, the standing desk fad is heavy on touting the benefits and low on accurately describing the risks. "Accurately" is the key, because the good old Internet echo chamber has grabbed a few factual-like sound bites and circulated them in ever amplified hyperbole, without reference to the scientific studies from which they were gleaned and distorted (except the apparent original, which came out of a university and cited everything). The most repeated, unsubstantiated claim is that standing at work can "increase your carotid atherosclerosis by nine times." Putting aside whether the people who parrot this claim even understand what it means, it certainly cheapens the cautionary value when it goes without explanation. NINE TIMES!!

So I dug up the paper and read it. Keep in mind, medical research is not my profession, and my interpretation of this paper can easily be challenged. But it's not that opaque. Onwards. It is always of interest to see who paid for a study and who conducted it. In this case, Standing at work and progression of carotid artherosclerosis was funded by grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the Academy of Finland, and the Finnish Ministry of Education, published in the peer-reviewed Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health in 2000 by a team of researchers from Berkeley, U. Mich, and the University of Kuopio, Finland. I don't know anything about the legitimacy or reputation of the funders, researchers, or publisher.

Also of importance is the study population. The data were gathered from self-reporting and medical examination of about 600 east Finnish, middle-aged men in the late 80's, selected by a Kuopio study of ischemic heart disease (IHD). To define terms, IHD is a reduction of blood flow to the heart, commonly due to atherosclerosis, or the buildup of deposits on artery walls. That can lead to a heart attack; by the by, stop smoking. It's the leading indicator for heart disease. This particular paper examines the effect of standing at work on artery wall buildup over four years across a variety of occupational and personal factors, finding that standing for work is a contributor independent of other known factors, like smoking, social class, and the type of work (which is the more shocking finding to me). The conclusions: standing at work contributes heavily to increased buildup - if you already have a buildup problem. Depending on the type of problem you have, the increase in buildup can be anywhere from three to, yes, nine, times worse than someone who also has a problem but does no standing for their job. For one group, without existing atherosclerosis, the association between degree of standing and carotid buildup was statistically insignificant (for the other, without IHD, it was, by 26%). They refer to both as healthy groups, but it's not clear to me whether someone can be without buildup but have IHD or vise versa and where someone who falls into either of those categories belongs in the study; it would seem to me the (heart) healthy group is the one that doesn't have either issue.

There does not appear to be another repeat study on a different population, geographical location, time period, etc. What we now know is based on a middle-aged northern European people group, solely men, from twenty years ago. If I had to give a binary answer on how reputable this research is, I would give it a thumbs up - and I'd also warn the low-effort bloggers out there who didn't bother trying to understand one fragment of its findings to rewrite their posts. On the one hand, the consequences are much more dire if you have heart problems, and you should absolutely not consider moving to a standing desk if you've had angina or a heart attack (or other diseases of the heart, really). If you're otherwise heart-healthy, this paper doesn't give you much reason to hold back from standing at work. I am not a doctor or an expert; if you have concerns, stop reading blogs and ask your personal physician.

And hopefully she won't go on to ask Dr. Alan Hedge. As I was assembling links to finish this off, I realized everybody was quoting Hedge, and that original article is from his research group at Cornell. For some reason, Hedge hates standing, calling it "one of the stupidest things one would ever want to do. This is the high heels of the furniture industry." If Dr. Hedge ever cares to explain why he started leaving off the qualifying phrase "for men with ischemic heart disease" from the rest of the dire warnings, I'd love to hear his explanation. I suppose it's harder for researcher-writers to get something like this right when the expert you dug up doesn't bother explaining it fully.


Me too...

I've also just started using a standing desk, and after not being able to find any in stores that I could try out, nailed some boards together and have been using that.

I need to adjust the keyboard height as I estimated about 2 or 3 inches too high.

And I need to make it easier to switch between standing and sitting, right now, the keyboard "tray" gets in the way of when I want to sit, as I have to crouch down a little to see the screen, presumably negating any benefits of standing up...

Jon Daley on September 17, 2013 03:58 PM

I'll trade you s...

I'll trade you some negative inches for your overhead; I built lower under the theory I could add more later (in practice, haven't bothered). Though what would really improve the desk now is a keyboard of independent halves.

Ryan Lee on September 20, 2013 12:35 PM

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