Sitting too much is a killer—literally. The more time you spend sitting down each day, the higher your risk for diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer …and death. Heading to the gym isn’t enough…the key is to decrease sedentary time. That includes standing more, sitting less. Hence the popularity of standing desks, which make it easy to stand for a good part of the day while you work.

But while the health benefits of avoiding excessive sitting are well-established, there has been little research on how standing desks affect how alert and productive you are. According to a new study, there’s a simple, no-cost way to increase your brainpower without hitting the gym or working up a sweat—simply stand.


The new study was conducted in elementary schoolchildren but it has lessons for us adults, too. For grade school kids, standing desks are a promising way to increase activity and fight the obesity epidemic…true for grown-ups, too. An earlier study by the same researchers showed that normal-weight students who use standing desks burn about 10 calories more each hour than students who sit. Overweight students burn 20 extra calories per hour. A few more calories burned each hour adds up during the day…week…month…year.

Now the researchers wanted to find out how standing desks affect attention. They studied 158 children in certain classrooms who were all given stand-biased desks for the school year. These make it easiest to stand, perhaps with a foot on a footrest, but there’s always a stool if the child wants to sit. The 124 children in the control group were in different classrooms with traditional sitting desks. All of the students in the study were observed at two different times during the school year. The observers, who didn’t know the purpose of the study, measured the amount of time that each child spent in active engagement (raising hands, answering questions or participating in a discussion), passive engagement (paying attention but not taking an active role in the lesson) and off-task behavior (not being connected to what’s happening in the class, doing other things, interrupting.)

The results: In the fall, students who were standing were about 10% more engaged than the students who were sitting. By spring, the children with traditional desks started to catch up in engagement, but the standing-desk schoolchildren still ranked about 2% higher on the engagement scale. The results were statistically significant.


You’re probably thinking, Adults are different from kids, and classrooms are different from offices, including home offices. True, but there are reasons to believe that more standing while we work can be beneficial for our brains, too. We already know that physical activity gets more oxygen flowing to the brain and helps maintain cognitive function—people who are more active can think better and faster. Other research has already shown that older adults who are more active are less likely to be affected by age-related cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Physical activity doesn’t always have to be strenuous to be beneficial. You may not consider standing to be physical activity, but when you stand, your body—not your recliner—is responsible for keeping you upright. Your heart is working just a little harder to pump blood upstairs, your leg and abdominal muscles—and even arm muscles—are engaged, so you’re burning about 50 more calories an hour. You might call it passive physical activity. For sure, it’s not a replacement for moderate-to-intense exercise, but it’s a big improvement on being sedentary hour after hour.

As with school kids, the best desk is one that lets you stand or sit. While sitting all day is a hazard, standing all the time can be tiring and can lead to back problems as well as varicose veins, including hemorrhoids. The stand-biased desks that the kids used are similar to standing-height desks—with stools available for when you want to sit—that are available for offices.

So instead of spending hours sitting at your desk all day, try a standing desk. To further raise the physical intensity at your desk, when you’re on the phone, try holding a weight in your hand or pacing back and forth. You’ll be helping your heart and your brain. Don’t want to invest in a standing desk? Try standing when you’re on the phone or reading a document, and make sure you take a short walk every hour. Working from home? Pop your laptop on the kitchen counter to stand and deliver. You might even find that your brainstorms are bigger and better. For more tips on how to stand and work, take a look at Bottom Line/Health’s article “A Standing Desk: The Smart Way to Stop Sitting So Much.”