Given the world's rapid transition to work-from-home positions and online jobs, many people face the plight of sitting behind a computer for lengthy amounts of time daily. Intuitively, it takes more energy to stand than it does to sit, but how many calories does standing burn, exactly?
Recent scientific evidence suggests there is indeed a difference in calories burned standing vs. sitting, but it may not be as significant as you think.
Curious if the calories burned standing have enough impact to justify switching to a standing desk for work?
Whether you're an active or relatively sedentary person trying to cut body fat, the marginal increase in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) from standing vs. sitting at work isn't going to make or break your results.
But don't let that stop you from getting on your feet during the workday!
There are several other potential health benefits of standing desks to consider, especially if you're behind a computer for 8+ hours a day.
(Note: This article was written while standing for maximal NEAT)
Let's briefly talk about the metabolic equivalent of task (MET), a measure of your working metabolic rate relative to your resting metabolic rate. Chances are you've seen the "MET" abbreviation while using a cardio machine and thought, "What the heck does this number mean?"
In short, 1 MET is the energy you spend at rest - it is your resting/basal metabolic rate. Going for a brisk walk will get your MET up to around the 5.0 mark, while high-intensity interval training and most sports take it well beyond 10.0.
Using MET values allows us to reverse engineer theoretical calories burned standing vs. sitting.
To determine calories burned standing vs. sitting, we simply multiply the respective MET value of an activity by body weight (in kilograms) and time (in hours).
For the theoretical number of calories you burn standing per hour, multiply your body weight in kg (1 kg = 2.2 lbs) by 2.3.
Example: An 80 kg (~176 lbs) individual "theoretically" burns about 120 calories per hour while sitting at a desk, whereas standing burns around 184 calories per hour.
The problem with the above method for calculating calories burned standing vs. sitting is that the "real-world" data falls well short of the theoretical model.
Multiple studies have analyzed the topic of calories standing vs. sitting, with equivocal results that vary widely.
- A study of young healthy college students found that standing burns roughly 1.36 calories per minute (cal/min), whereas sitting burns about 1.02 cal/min. That's a 33% difference in calories burned standing vs sitting.
- A more recent study of middle-aged healthy office workers found that there were between 7.8-11.5% more calories burned from standing vs sitting.
- In obese and overweight office workers, research has shown that standing burns an additional 0.16 cal/min, which was a 13% increase relative to sitting.
- Other research has found no meaningful difference in calories burned standing vs sitting.
You might think these studies suggest you can burn upwards of 33% more calories per day by standing vs. sitting at work, but that's not what they tell us.
While research has found "statistically significant" differences in calories burned standing vs. sitting it ultimately doesn't add up to a considerable amount for most people.
At best, switching to a standing desk will help you burn anywhere between an extra 100-200 calories over the course of 8 hours (assuming you don't sit periodically). But it could be fewer than 60 calories according to some studies.
Also, consider that 8 hours of work only accounts for 1/3rd of your total daily calorie burn. If you work on a computer most of the day, whether sitting or standing, it's not a physically demanding task. You will burn significantly more energy by regularly exercising and going for walks throughout the day.
In practice, it's more sensible to alternate between sitting and standing periods while you work because A) we're not robots and standing in place for 8+ hours is inhuman, and B) most people will need to sit intermittently for things like meetings, lunch, using the bathroom, feet/legs getting sore, etc.
Make no mistake that standing burns more calories than sitting, but the slight increase in NEAT won't be meaningful enough for most people who want to lose weight.
But we can't rule out the other health benefits of standing desks.
Feeling underwhelmed by how many calories you burn standing? The benefits of standing desks go far beyond just the increase in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and there's plenty of scientific evidence to back them up.
Research shows that extensive sitting inhibits key fat-burning enzymes - hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL) and adipose triglyceride lipase (ATL) - in the body's fat tissue (adipose). Without the activity of these enzymes, the body can't efficiently split apart and break down triglycerides found in fat cells.
Thus, sitting for hours at a time makes it harder for lipase to work its "fat-burning" mojo, so to speak. It goes to show that there's more to the puzzle than just the calories burned standing vs. sitting.
It's well-known that poor sitting posture can lead to back and neck issues. After all, there's a reason that the chair had to be invented - it's simply not a natural position for humans or any other animal. Sitting all day inactivates gluteal (butt) and posterior chain muscles, causing the hip flexors, quadriceps, upper trapezius, anterior scalenes (neck muscles), and even the pectorals to tighten up.
Over time, this comprises the curvature of the spine and leaves you liable to developing poor postural habits like sagging your shoulders and neck forward. To make matters worse, we are constantly looking down at smartphones and tablets, which leads to a loss in the curvature of the cervical (neck) spine region.
A standing desk can be beneficial as it allows you to keep your shoulders retracted, glutes/lumbar spine active, and chin/neck up while you work on the computer. When you do sit, be mindful of your posture and do your best not to let your neck and shoulders slouch forward while you type.
It seems so ironic that sitting all day makes us feel tired and lazy; many people just want to go home and lay on the couch once they finish a day of working on the computer. According to research, the key to overcoming the mental fog and fatigue that sets in from desk jobs is to go for intermittent walks throughout the workday. Even a quick 5-10 minute stroll every hour or so will suffice.
Struggling to focus while working from home or at the office? Check out these science-backed productivity hacks to keep you on-task!
A significant body of evidence suggests that those who sit for extended periods throughout the day are more prone to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases like type-2 diabetes. Interestingly enough, a short 20-minute walk can have pronounced benefits on insulin, and blood glucose balance (especially after a meal); standing appears to have similar merits according to a recent systematic review of standing and treadmill desks in the workplace.
Sedentary lifestyles are undeniably problematic from a health and longevity standpoint. Many office workers go 8+ hours sitting at a desk typing and clicking away without a second thought, and don't follow it up with any diligent exercise.
The good news is that you can stay somewhat active even while being productive on the computer/at a desk.
Here are two prudent options to get you on your feet during the workday:
- Take a quick 5-10 minute walk (ideally outside in the sun) every 45-60 minutes.This will keep your mind fresh and get your body moving a bit.
- If you have the resources, invest in a standing desk. It's well worth it in this day and age.
- The best (but most expensive option) is to a motorized standing desk that lets you switch to a sitting position quickly.
The benefits of standing desks are significant for many people, regardless of how active you are outside of work. Hopefully, you didn't just finish a long day of sitting behind the computer before reading this article. Now, stand up and rack up some non-exercise activity thermogenesis (a nerdy of way saying standing burns more calories!).
Even better, check out our list of the Best At-Home Workout Routines to get your heart pumping and body moving!