Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for the best experience on this site, additional security, and speed.

Update browser

All rise! Height-adjustable desks can reduce workplace sitting by over an hour a day

A woman standing at a desk typing on a laptop

Researchers at the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) – a partnership between Leicester’s Hospitals, the University of Leicester and Loughborough University – have developed a programme that, when paired with a height-adjustable desk, can reduce the time people spend sitting by over an hour. To date, it is the largest study worldwide looking into programmes to overcoming sedentary behaviour in the workplace.

The team tested their ‘SMART Work and Life’ programme – training for workplace champions, educational resources, ongoing behaviour change support and a set of apps and software to monitor sitting time, – which has been developed for people who spend a lot of their day sitting down, in six local authorities across Leicester, Greater Manchester and Liverpool.

Over 750 desk-based workers were put in one of three groups. The first group were given the SMART Work and Life programme alone; the second group received the SMART Work and Life programme and a height-adjustable desk, so they could sit or stand while working at their computer. A third group acted as a control with neither the SMART Work and Life programme nor the height-adjustable desk.

The research team monitored the sitting behaviour of participants via a small device worn on the thigh.

Researchers found that compared to the control group, people using the SMART Work and Life programme sat for 22 minutes less per day. For participants using both the SMART Work and Life programme and a height adjustable desk, this tripled to over an hour more time spent on their feet across the working day.

Interestingly, while participants using the programme and the height-adjustable desk reduced their sitting time in the workplace, this had little impact on behaviour at home, indicating that it is challenging to break sitting habits in leisure time.

In the UK, sedentary behaviours are known to contribute to over £700 million in NHS costs and were responsible for 69,276 deaths in 2016. The COVId-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these behaviours, and their consequences for public health, prompting policy interest in public health strategies that promote safe physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviours.

Desk-based workers spend around 70 per cent of their workday sitting down and many continue to spend time sitting once at home, with data showing they accumulate 9 to10 hours per day of sitting. Sedentary behaviour in the workplace also affects job performance and is associated with higher levels of presenteeism.

Dr Charlotte Edwardson, Associate Professor of Physical Activity Sedentary Behaviour and Health at the University of Leicester, and lead author of the paper, said: “Our results suggest a combination of education, motivational resources, peer support and standing desks has the greatest effect on reducing sitting in the workplace.

“These results are a major step in providing evidence-based tools to reduce sedentary behaviour and improve health in the workplace.”

Dr Alex Clarke-Cornwell, Reader in Public Health Epidemiology from the University of Salford, who is a co-author of the study, said: “Alongside the reduction in sitting time, participants perceived small improvements in stress, wellbeing, and work vigour. They also reported feeling more energised, focused and productive, with the group who also received the desk reporting fewer musculoskeletal issues.”

SMART Work and Life is a multi-component programme including a package of training for health and wellbeing champions with workplaces. It also includes educational resources, apps and software to track sitting time and get reminders to stand up more regularly, motivational posters, sitting less challenges, suggestions on how to make small environmental changes and many more helpful resources available to all who take part. It is facilitated by workplace champions who encourage participants and develop tailored strategies for individual teams.

Dr Edwardson and her team have turned the SMART Work and Life programme into an online resource kit which is easily accessible to organisations. SMART Work and Life is a great resource to use alongside height-adjustable desks, as part of an office environment change or as a stand-alone toolkit to encourage less sitting.  The programme can be accessed here:

The article: “Effectiveness of the SMART Work & Life intervention for reducing sitting time and improving health in office workers: A three-arm cluster randomised controlled trial” can be found in the British Medical Journal.

It was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), which funds, enables and delivers world-leading health and social care research that improves people’s health and wellbeing and promotes economic growth.