If Sitting is Bad, Should I Stand, Walk, or Cycle My Way Through the Work Day?

The risks associated with remaining seated for extended periods of time has led to recommendations to move more frequently and the increased popularity of standing, treadmill and cycling workstations. Performing research online to determine which of these types of workstations is most beneficial or suitable can lead to more advertisements that objective information and it can become hard to separate fact from fiction, or in many cases, science from marketing and opinion. With so much information available to us today, it can be nice to take a step back and see what the scientific literature tells us about these types of workstations. A recent review, Health and productivity at work: which active workstation for which benefits: a systematic review, set out to evaluate what benefits were associated with each of these three types of workstations. Using that understanding, we can then select the most appropriate workstation based on our individual preferences and needs, type of work we perform, and our work environment.

Searches were performed across Central, Embase, PubMed and Web of Science databases, and the search terms selected returned 1352 articles. 274 of these studied active workstations, and only 12 met all of the inclusion criteria specified in the systematic review. Of these 12 articles, some reported information in each of the areas the authors were evaluating, musculoskeletal activity, physiological activity, work performance, and psychobiological. Physiological evaluations included changes to mean heart rate, blood pressure, energy expenditure, perceived exertion and pain tolerance. Work performance outcomes were separated into perceived work performance, actual performance tasks, processing speed tasks, attention and short memory. Outcomes for musculoskeletal activity and psychobiological were each only reported from a single study. For more detailed information on these areas, reviewing the original studies would be most useful, and an additional literature search may be worthwhile. It is interesting to note that although sitting workstations were evaluated in some of the studies, they were outside of the scope of this review and thus outcomes from sitting workstations were not reported.

My primary consideration in choosing a type of workstation would be impacts to work performance, and in this area I am more interested in actual work performance rather than perceived. It is not helpful for me to believe I am amazingly productive at my new workstation if I am not actually accomplishing anything. This is because I will only be able to continue use of a workstation if I can maintain or improve my work performance while using it. As this would likely be true for many of us, this area may be of the most interest to you as well. Results for actual performance tasks showed a reduction in typing speed for treadmill and cycling workstations as compared to standing. One of three studies showed a reduction in typing accuracy for cycling compared to standing. Mouse pointing speed and accuracy were reported to be reduced for treadmill and cycling compared to standing. One study also showed a reduction in mouse pointing performance with treadmill compared to cycling. Speed and reaction time to accomplish a simple task were evaluated and showed slower speed for treadmill and standing compared to cycling. Cycling also showed faster reaction time compared to standing.

Overall summaries for each type of workstation are presented in the review and demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of each based on the 12 included studies.

Cycling stations demonstrated evidence of increased energy expenditure and heart rate, decreased blood pressure, increased alertness and reduced boredom, two outcomes associated with well-being and productivity at work. No reductions to work productivity were reported compared to standing or treadmill stations.

Treadmill stations report increased energy expenditure, heart rate, and decreased blood pressure at faster speeds with the trade off of increased perceived exertion that may inhibit work performance. With treadmills, psychological benefits of increased alertness, reduced boredom, reduction in task stress and increase in satisfaction were reported. Work performance in terms of typing speed and mouse pointing speed and accuracy were reduced. Faster speeds were associated with greater muscle activity in upper limbs which prompted the authors to suggest that further study is warranted to ensure safety.

Standing workstations are not associated with reduced efficiency with computer work or perceived exertion. They were further discussed in this review as compared to seated stations which is not consistent with the discussions of either treadmill or cycling, as the seated station comparisons from the included studies was purposely excluded from the results section. The authors reference studies which support that standing stations reduce time seated at work, and thus improve blood pressure, inhibit lumbar flexion which is associated with low back pain, and do not impact productivity.

The data provided by this systematic review help us understand what has been demonstrated in the scientific literature as benefits and challenges when we compare standing, treadmill, and cycling workstations. The limited number of studies included, some with small sample sizes, and short-term outcome measures would indicate that larger randomized controlled trials with longer follow-up periods would be needed to confirm these findings and support definitive conclusions.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay 

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