Standing Desk: Rationale

This article is part 3 of 7 in the series Standing Desk

Andy asked about the Standing Desk thing that I figure is worth answering in a quick blog post. It’s basically why a short burst of exercise isn’t enough to offset sitting still for hours on end.

What happens when your muscles are at rest is that the electrical activity is massively reduced: your nerves aren’t sending signals to the muscles in order to move them. Apparently, there’s some fallout from that:

  1. The rate at which these muscles burn calories is reduced to about a third.
  2. Within 24h of rest, Insulin effectiveness is reduced by 40%. That means the risk for developing type 2 diabetes rises significantly.
  3. The body produces fewer of the enzymes that are used to filter fat out of the blood stream. In other words, there’s less good cholesterol in your blood, and more bad fats that can clog your arteries. Apparently the effectiveness with which fats are filtered is reduced by ca. 75%.

Let’s look at the first of these points and rephrase it slightly: standing up triples the amount of calories you burn compared to sitting down1. By comparison, a quick, unconfirmed Google search suggests that aerobics crank up your calorie burn rate to almost 10x that of sitting down. Let’s call the sitting down burn rate B.

  • You sleep for ca. 8 hours burning calories at rate B.
  • You’ll likely sit down for about two hours a day for eating, etc. You’ll also burn calories at rate B then.
  • You work for 8 hours a day.

The base rate B is going to be something along the lines of 80-odd calories per hour, if I can believe my Google results. If I spend 10 hours sleeping/eating, that’s 800 calories burned during that time. If I spend another 8 hours sitting down during work, that’s about another 640 calories, bringing the total to 1440.

Men are supposed to consume some 2550 calories a day, and — as a rule of thumb — therefore have to burn the same amount in order to not gain weight. Sitting down during work, I’m burning just over half that in 18 hours. To burn the other half at 10x the rate of sitting down, I’d have to do a solid 1.5 hours of aerobics every day to compensate, which leaves me 4.5 hours to the day.

If I were an ideal weight already, I wouldn’t need to do 1.5 hours of aerobics, of course. The remaining 4.5 hours may include just enough leisurely activity that an hour each day may be enough. To be honest, I don’t care enough about the numbers to be very precise here. I know very few people who consistently average at one hour or more per day of good cardiovascular exercise — and I certainly don’t.

Now if I was standing up during work, I’d burn up to 1920 calories during my 8 hour work shift. With the calories I burn sleeping and eating, I’m already above my daily rate, with no scheduled exercise periods at all.

Let me stress here that I googled these numbers, and can’t exactly rely on them. On top of that, everyone’s metabolism works differently. So this is in no way supposed to guarantee that by merely standing up during your working hours you’re going to lose weight.

The point of this exercise in numbers is merely to show that “catching up” with sitting down instead of just standing up is quite a lot more difficult than the “half hour of exercise each day, enough to raise your heart rate” that’s quite often quoted.

The second point is that burning enough calories is relatively easy compared to combating the other effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Your insulin should work effectively throughout the whole day, or you’ll suffer from fairly extreme highs and lows in blood sugar.

Clogging your arteries is something that you can’t do for a few hours and not expect bad results — imagine someone suggesting that it’s fine to stop breathing for a few hours, as long as you catch up with half an hour of breathing exercises each day. The analogy isn’t as whacky as it might sound: after all, the oxygen you breathe in is carried through your body to where it’s needed by unclogged blood vessels only.

Now there are some caveats I’ve got to make here: I don’t think the situation is half as simple as I make it out to be in this post. Much of what I’ve written above comes from this article, which may or may not already paint a very skewed picture of what’s going on2. I’m not helping matters by dumbing it down more. So let me be very clear that I do not think merely standing up will solve all your health problems, or anything even remotely resembling such an idea.

However, I do think there’s enough in what’s being presented in the above article — and other sources around the ‘net — that leads me to question whether my life of sitting in front of a computer is ultimately going to be good for me. If standing up during work is suspected to help improve things, I’m happy to give it a try, at least.

  1. I’ve seen other figures that merely double it. []
  2. Given how bad science reporting can be, I wouldn’t be surprised if this piece of news was debunked in a short while. []

  • lobotony

    thanks for the numbers, very interesting. 

    • unwesen

      You’re welcome :)