If sitting is the new smoking, is a standing desk the equivalent of giving up smoking? Maybe. Or maybe not. At the moment, we don't have strong evidence to say standing for longer produces health benefits, never mind the standing desk craze.
The Cochrane Library reviewed 20 studies of "interventions aimed at reducing sitting time at work." Sit-stand desks reduced sitting by between 30 minutes and two hours a day, depending on when the measurement was taken (soon after installing the desk, or later). But the studies tended to be small (across all 20, only 2,174 people participated) and, in some cases, badly designed, and only measured workers for a short duration.
"We conclude that at present there is very low quality evidence that sit-stand desks can reduce sitting at work at the short term," the authors say. "There is no evidence for other types of interventions. We need research to assess the effectiveness of different types of interventions for decreasing sitting at workplaces in the long term."
The evidence on how bad sitting is for you is more robust. A recent study from Holland, for instance, found that each extra hour of sitting increased the odds of developing Type 2 diabetes by 22%. Other studies have shown increased heart disease risk related to sitting. And a comprehensive review of cancer data found that people who sat more increased their risk of developing colon cancer by 24% and developing lung cancer by 21%.
The new review doesn't say standing desks are bad, or that they produce no impact when they help people sit less. It just says that there's little evidence that installing a standing desk reduces sitting. It's possible that better research will find more positive results. So, don't give up your expensive new purchase just yet.