Standing desks became really popular in the early 2000s but faded away like most early 2000 fads (think studded belts, Blink 182 and Razor scooters). They have recently seen a return to form, with everyone from your local GP to Greg from accounting singing their praises.
- 1 Standing Up Is Healthier
- 2 Standing Up Improves Cognitive Function
- 3 Sitting Down For Long Periods Affects Your Brain
- 4 Stand Up While Working
Standing Up Is Healthier
It’s clear that standing is better than sitting. You burn more calories while standing up. Your chest is extended so you breathe easier. And you can feel smug while the mere mortals in the desks around you sit hunched like Quasimodo, slowly folding into their own bellies while you stand proud and barrel-chested like a peacock on heat.
There isn’t much debate into which is healthier. It’s standing. Get yourself a standing desk. Your Google search ends here.
That said, (and it still needs to be said, as there are plenty of us online who need a ‘that said’ section of any article) – standing all day without taking time to sit is bad for your health as well. Like all things in life, it’s a balancing act. Stand when you want, sit when you must. It isn’t rocket science. If your back is creaking then get to the seating.
This isn’t about whether standing is healthier. Rather, this is about how standing at your desk can help improve mental and cognitive function.
Standing Up Improves Cognitive Function
This idea came from a debate in my office. I believe standing increases blood flow and therefore blood flow to the brain, while increased blood flow leads to an increase in intelligence and increased cognitive abilities (you can tell at this point that I work in an office full of excitement). A standing desk at the workplace thus encourages office workers to stand up for some parts of the day, improving their productivity. My manager disagreed. And so began hours of valuable company time down this rabbit hole, on a pointless bet nobody asked for. But one I was determined to resolve, and win.
This study published in 2017 states that participants were asked to take part in the Stroop test while seated and standing. The Stroop effect examines the lag our brains endure when making sense of contradictory information. For example, participants are shown printed names of colours, with each name printed in the colour they’re spelled out as (green in green ink, red in red etc). If you switch this and say write the word pink in blue ink, or green in red ink, it takes longer to identify the colour written down.
That difference in speed one would need to identify the colours identifies brain processing speed and attention.
With participants in this test performing the test both sitting and standing, the study proved that when standing, the participants had more success.
A fraction more, 120 milliseconds difference to be exact.
Which may sound like a blink of an eye (which it essentially is), but when you consider just how much data your brain is exposed to daily, those numbers add up. Standing adds extra stress to your body, but the good kind of stress. Like avocados give you the good kind of fat. Again, it’s a balancing act. Too much stress will freak you out, no stress at all makes you complacent. The study proved that standing gives just enough stress to increase our cognitive powers. That extra stress sharpens your concentration – making you more productive.
So, maybe not smarter, but more productive. My manager and I shook hands and agreed the debate was settled.
Sitting Down For Long Periods Affects Your Brain
On the other hand, one of the many tabs I’d left opened was this piece in the New York Times by Dr Richard A. Friedman, who (whether by office bet or otherwise) was researching the very same idea.
Mr Friedman brought up another study. In it, healthy people in their mid-40s to early 70s were quizzed about how much activity they did each day and how much of that day was spent seated. Their brains were then scanned with M.R.Is, and lo and behold, they discovered that the thickness of their medial lobes (the bit in charge of remembering your wife’s birthday) was “inversely correlated with how sedentary they were; the subjects who reported sitting for longer periods had the thinnest medial temporal lobes”.
And if your lobes are hurting after reading that, what it basically boiled down to was this: the more time you spend on your butt, the worse it is for your brain. The subjects were all screened and those with medical and psychological issues were discounted, making this quite compelling evidence.
Read a little more into the study and you’ll find researchers did not find much of an association between how much you physically exercise and the thickness of the temporal lobe.
Even a daily gym session may not be enough to counter the effects of long-term sitting.
My “standing equals more blood equals smarter” theory may not be totally correct. But it is sort of correct. And sort of correct is better than wrong. So, I’ll take it.
Stand Up While Working
You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know that stimulating your brain is exercising it. And by simply standing up you’re exposing yourself to more stimulation. The big claims for standing over sitting may feel exaggerated, it does seem like there’s an almost invisible difference that could make standing up the wiser option if improving your brain’s functions. Maybe that’s why Steve Jobs held most of his meetings while walking? That, or he really was just an eccentric. Perhaps a bit of both.
The importance of exercise is well known. However, it’s not enough to simply work up a sweat and then spend the next eight hours at your desk rooted like a pot plant. Evidently, your brain wants to be stimulated even in the middle of a day. And that doesn’t mean deadlifts and squats either. It just means stretching those legs.
If you’re reading this at your desk I urge you to stand. Not all day. Just for a while. Just long enough to focus your brain on the task at hand. I wrote this standing up.
Now for a well-deserved seat.
Time to get your own standing desk? See Zen Space Desks’ range of sit-stand desks here. If you liked this post about how standing affects your brain, we think you’d enjoy these Tips To Improve Your Health By Standing.