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Standing desks and productivity gain? Um, maybe not so much

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

“Sitting is the new smoking.” You’ve heard that, right? The expression refers mostly to work environments but also to schools. The recent surge of interest in standing desks or desktop converters for the workplace or workspace has drawn assertions that not only is standing while working good for you, it leads to greater productivity, too. Not so fast, says Fast Company, the votes are not all in on productivity, and it turns out that one widely quoted study wasn’t much of a scientific study after all.

Productivity gains of 46 percent were cited in a Texas A&M University study of call center employees. Over six months, the study tracked the work of 167 call center workers in two groups, one sitting, and one using sit-stand desks (adjustable up and down). The problems with the study relate to a classic issue in experimental design: too many dependent variables.

Basically, there was no real control group, because the sitting group consisted of experienced employees talking with existing customers while the the sit-stand group consisted of new employees taking calls from newer clients. Apples and oranges. So basically we can forget about productivity gain from that study, because no statistically significant conclusions can be drawn.

Related: The ups and downs of standing desks, and 3 beginner mistakes to avoid

It’s notable that another Texas A&M study that claimed improvement in student cognition from the beginning to the end of the school year when high school freshman used stand-capable desks, but there was no mention of a control group in that study, so those results are shaky as well.

Fast Company cited Dr. Jack P. Callaghan, a professor at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo, who critiqued the productivity study. Callaghan and another author found no substantive trend suggesting increased productivity when they analyzed eight studies of  sit-stand-capable desks and productivity. They found any changes in productivity tended to be “marginal.”

Productivity gains aside, the health benefits of standing or using sit-stand desks are still attractive, but even then simply standing all day isn’t the answer for improved health. A combination of sitting, standing, stretching, and moving about will yield the greatest health benefit, according to Lucas J. Carr, assistant professor in the Department of Health & Human Physiology at the University of Iowa.

So overall, even if sitting is considered the new smoking in terms of health effects, you can’t convincingly argue the need for a snazzy $3,000 motorized adjustable-height desk just because it will pay back in productivity.