Stand up, sit less and move more, researchers say; here's how to do it

Story highlights

  • A recent study finds that standing -- even without moving around -- can have health benefits
  • Spending more time upright could increase productivity as well as make you healthier

(CNN)You might want to stand up for this. A growing amount of research suggests that just standing -- even if you don't walk around -- can have health benefits.

A recent study in Australia found that participants who spent time more standing and moving in the course of a week, based on a sensitive monitor adhered to their thigh, had lower levels of blood sugar and cholesterol. The benefits were even greater, and including reductions in body-mass index and waist circumference, among those who took more steps during the day.
The researchers of the study boiled down their findings to the simple message: "Stand up, sit less, move more." The study was published last week in the European Heart Journal.
    Although the research has been pretty clear that there are health benefits to not sitting, we are just starting to understand that standing alone may be a good alternative, said Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, director of preventive cardiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Lopez-Jimenez wrote an editorial that accompanied the study in the European Heart Journal.
    "The reason [standing could be good] is because when we stand there are many muscles in our legs and butt and abdomen that are working to keep you standing," he said. "Whenever muscle is used, it consumes sugar and affects triglycerides," which could, in turn, lower cholesterol, Lopez-Jimenez said. Standing regularly could translate into lower diabetes and heart disease risk, he added.

    Not just exercise

    The current U.S. guidelines for physical activity focus on formal exercise, rather than just moving, and recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise such as jogging or biking. However, research suggests that even people who exercise face increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes if they are otherwise sedentary.
    Lopez-Jimenez thinks the lack of guidelines on sedentary behavior are "a problem because we have to start shifting the attention and consider more the idea of avoiding sitting." We need recommendations about many hours to avoid sitting, just like we have for the number of hours we should sleep, he added.
    However it is hard to say exactly how to break up our nonsitting time between standing, walking and other activities because we don't know enough about their different health benefits, Lopez-Jimenez said.
    In Australia, there are already specific recommendations about how much you should stand and how to do it. It is the first country to have such guidelines, Lopez-Jimenez said. In Colombia, government computers have software that pause the machines, forcing employees to take a break.
    For now, Lopez-Jimenez advises his patients to engineer their lives to be less sedentary such as using a standing desk at work and taking the stairs whenever possible.
    If we can manage to build more movement into our everyday activities, it might even be possible to skip the gym, although research is needed to address this possibility, Lopez-Jimenez. "If you barely sit during the day, do you really have to exercise to be healthy?" he said.

    Timing is everything

    Standing is great, but there can be too much of a good thing.
    "It causes a whole variety of problems, just as if you sit for too long," said Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University. In particular, standing for prolonged periods is associated with varicose veins and back pain, he said.
    To get the right balance, Hedge recommends sitting 20 minutes out of every half hour at work, standing for eight minutes and moving around for at least two minutes. Although there is really no harm in spending more time in motion, you may be pretty tired by the end of the day if you do, Hedge said.
    You can try to stick to this 20-8-2 breakdown by setting the alarm on your phone, using a timer app on your computer or relying on an old fashioned egg timer. "[But] these numbers are not absolute, it's a guideline. There may be times where you have to spend a whole half hour working on a document," Hedge said.
    Following this guideline means that you would be standing up and sitting down 32 times in a workday, which could have its own benefits.
    Each time you do that, you are giving your body a "gravitational stimulus," reminding it of the effect of gravity, which can help muscles and bones stay strong, Hedge said. In the book, "Sitting Kills, Moving Heals," Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division, talks about research suggesting that 32 transitions in a day helps maintain healthy blood pressure.

    Let the work rhythm move you

    Even if you don't set a timer to tell you when to get out of your seat, there are a number of ways you can build more movement into your workday. Lopez-Jimenez suggests his patients set up their space so that things are not at arm's reach.
    "Having a printer at the end of the hallway is going to force you to walk every time you print a page," he said.
    These little life hacks can take many forms depending on what you do. For example, if you are an executive or administrator and have to be on the phone a lot, you could use an earpiece and talk while walking the hallway or standing in a conference room, Lopez-Jimenez said.
    Workplaces are also starting to do their part to help staff get on their feet.
    Some companies have moved vending machines to one central floor as an easy way to get you walking, Hedge said. "You're not even thinking, 'Oh well, I have to walk now,' " he added.
    At Lopez-Jimenez's Mayo Clinic, some cardiology meeting rooms have treadmills at the back of the conference room so attendees can walk instead of sit or stand. "The product was so successful that we had to put up sign-up sheets," he said.

    Go out to eat

    Next time you are deciding between lunch from the deli or take-out Chinese, it may make sense to consider going to the spot that is a bit longer stroll, Hedge said. And instead of getting frustrated with the long line to order, just think that you are making a dent in your standing time for the hour.
    If you brown bag your lunch and eat at your desk, you can take advantage of the time you saved not going out for food by taking a walk around the floor or block.

    Stand by your work

    Standing desks are all the rage, and they are an easy way to squeeze more vertical time into your day, Hedge said.
    Adding one to your workspace does not have to be a big investment. Hedge recommends starting with a low-tech setup to see if you like it: "Three pieces of wood like a bench (on top of your desk), and you have your platform. And if that works, you can spend several hundred dollars on one," he said.
    A number of adjustable standing desks are available that can help make the transition between standing and sitting seamless. They run the gamut from electronic to pneumatic, which slide up and down similar to the way an adjustable chair works.
    "Whatever it is, has to be easy to use and quick, if you can't make an adjustment easily you are not going to use it," Hedge said. Try them out -- some of the electronic kind are slow, noisy and use a lot of electricity, while the pneumatic variety can be hard to adjust, he noted.
    Putting a makeshift footrest -- a small box for example -- under the desk can make the standing arrangement more comfortable. Standing on one foot and having the other on a footrest, then switching feet, can ease strain on the back and feet, Hedge said.
    Some people go so far as to set up an exercise machine such as a treadmill under their standing desk so they can move in place. Lopez-Jimenez uses a small electronic stair stepper, which he says was inexpensive, when he talks on the phone or dictates clinical notes. "I add a couple hours of not only standing but stepping," he said.

    Doing your best work

    One way to help mix up your time sitting, standing and moving is to figure out how you are most productive. Studies suggest you might not do as well with fine motor skills, such as typing or using a computer mouse, at a standing or treadmill desk, Hedge said. Likewise, for really focused work you might do better sitting.
    "Anecdotally, treadmill desk companies have people sign waivers (for) if you get engrossed in what you are doing and propelled off the back (of the machine)," Hedge said.
    For tasks such as reading, you might perform equally well sitting, standing or moving, Hedge said. Plus being on your feet has the advantage that it could keep you more alert, he added.
    However, as Lopez-Jimenez pointed out, we still need more research to figure out which positions bring out the best in us. He is working on a study looking at how sitting, standing and walking or stepping affect typing and mouse work as well as our ability to concentrate and pay attention.

    Take a stand for TV

    There are many opportunities outside of the workplace to stand up for your health. Americans spend an estimated five hours glued to the TV, but we can help break out of this "couch potato syndrome" by watching standing up.
    To make it easier to stay off the couch, some people have a treadmill, exercise bike or a stair stepper in front of the TV, Hedge said. A more low-tech way is to just to stand, and lean on a table or kitchen counter, while glued to the boob tube. Just like when you work at a standing desk, resting one foot on a rail or box can make the upright experience more comfortable.

    Park far away and take the stairs

    The advice to park a little farther away at work or the grocery store and walk is old but good, Hedge said. Another no-brainer is to take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator if you are only going up a couple of flights. This could get easier as more new buildings are being designed that feature staircases prominently in the lobby instead of the emergency staircase that you have to search for, Hedge said.
    "In our society, we value doing nothing or minimizing the physical effort that our legs and hands do, but we spend money to pay for the gym and do heavy exercise," Lopez-Jimenez said. "We need to start valuing activity more," he added.

    Technology may be your aid

    Wearable devices such as the FitBit, Virgin Pulse and Nike FuelBand, to name a few, can tell you how much you have moved in a day and estimate how many calories you have burned. But that requires you to be pretty active. Newer technology, such as the KAM device, can detect even minimal movements, Lopez-Jimenez said. And the Apple Watch actually keeps track of whether you have been standing or sitting.
    Although today's wearable devices may not be all that accurate yet at measuring small changes in activity, "I think the trend will be toward continuing all these things," Lopez-Jimenez said.