NEW YORK • Everyone knows that physical activity is good and being sedentary is not.
Some have extrapolated this to mean that sitting, in general, is something to be avoided, even at work. Research, however, suggests that warnings about sitting at work are overblown and that standing desks are overrated as a way to improve health.
A number of studies have found a significant association between prolonged sitting time over a 24-hour period and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. A study from 2015, which followed more than 50,000 adults for over three years, also found this link.
But it found that context mattered. Prolonged sitting in certain situations - including when people were at work - did not have this same effect.
Why not? Sitting itself may not be the problem; it may be a marker for other risk factors that are associated with higher mortality. For some, sedentary time is a marker, not the cause, of bad outcomes.
Studies looking specifically at work do not find a causal pattern.
One 2015 paper focused on workers aged 50 to 74 in Japan for more than 10 years on average per participant. It found that - among salaried workers, professionals and those in home businesses - there was no association between sitting at work and cardiovascular risk.
A 2016 study examining Danish workers also failed to find a link.
A systematic review, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that there were many studies that identified associations with sitting at work and poor health outcomes.
But when they focused on prospective studies - following groups of people over time - they found that there was not really much evidence to support it.
Moreover, these studies tend to focus only on the positive effects of standing at work and the negative effects of sitting. A full accounting would also examine the opposite.
A longitudinal study of more than 38,000 people, published in the journal Occupational And Environmental Medicine, found that standing or walking for more than six hours a day at work was associated with a doubled or tripled risk of needing surgery for varicose veins.
Varicose veins are associated with increased risks of arterial disease and heart failure.
It is possible, though, that standing at work could be a marker for other unhealthy demographic factors or habits, including lower socio-economic status. There is a difference between those who must stand or walk for most of the workday and those who can sit at any time.
But particularly for those who do not have the option to lower their desk, there is at least some evidence in that study, and in others, that standing for much of a workday is not healthful.
It is clear that too much sitting over the course of a day is not healthy. And exercise is the closest thing to a wonder drug. Few things provide as much health benefits.
But standing is not exercise.
Many health groups recommend that people at work take frequent walking breaks. Replacing sitting with standing does not fulfil that recommendation and may even mislead people into thinking they are doing enough activity.