How the media oversold standing desks as a fix for inactivity at work

by The Conversation / 25 September, 2017

Standing desks became all the rage in many offices, with media headlines warning about the dangers of continuing to sit. Photo / Getty Images

Sitting is so culturally ingrained at work, at the wheel, in front of the TV and at the movies, it takes a great effort to imagine doing these things standing up, let alone pedalling as you work at a “bike desk”.

So, when the world’s first specific guidelines on sitting and moving at work were published, they generated headlines such as:

Abandon your chair for four hours to stay healthy, office workers are told


Stand up at your desk for two hours a day, new guidelines say

But what many media reports did not mention was the guidelines were based on limited evidence. They were also co-authored by someone with commercial links to sit-stand desks (desks you raise and lower to work at standing or sitting), a link not declared when the guidelines were first published in a journal.

Media reports also overplayed the dangers of sitting at work, incorrectly saying it wiped out the benefits of exercise.

Our new study reveals the nature of this media coverage and its role in overselling sit-stand desks as a solution to inactivity at work.

Yes, sitting is associated with health risks, such as dying early from any cause, having heart disease and even cancer progression. So, no wonder we want to know if we should be sitting less.

Employers are also starting to see sitting as an occupational health and safety issue and sit-stand desks, standing desks and even treadmill desks are popping up at work.

To address these issues, the guidelines recommended measures including:

  • aiming for two hours a day of standing and light activity (slow walking) during working hours, eventually progressing to a total of four hours a day for all office workers with mainly desk-based roles

  • regularly breaking up sit-down work with standing using adjustable sit-stand desks or work stations

  • avoiding long periods of standing still, which may be as harmful as long periods sitting

  • changing posture and doing some light walking to alleviate possible musculoskeletal pain and fatigue, and

  • recommending employers warn staff about the potential dangers of too much sitting at work or at home, as part of workplace health and wellness activities.

How did the media report this?

Our team analysed news articles about the guidelines published in media outlets around the world.

We found all the articles reported the top-line recommendation to reduce sitting by two hours a day, and to replace the sitting with standing or slow walking.

Almost two-thirds of articles also noted the recommendation that people should regularly break up seated work with standing, and that this could be done with a sit-stand desk.

The guidelines recommended breaking up long periods of sitting down at work. But are sit-stand desks the answer?

Even though the guidelines’ authors said the recommendations were based on the best evidence so far and more evidence was needed, these caveats did not make it into most news media reporting.

These caveats are important because the authors acknowledge the evidence quality is weak and that guidelines are likely to change.

Commercial interests

The news media also seemed to be unaware of amendments to the journal article, including to expand the disclosure of competing interests to clarify one author, Gavin Bradley, has a connection to the business of selling sit-stand desks.

The revised version notes Gavin Bradley is 100% owner of a website that sells sit-stand work products called Sit-Stand Trading Limited. He is also director of the Active Working Community Interest Company (CIC).

The Active Working CIC runs the Get Britain Standing campaign and is active in other parts of the world including the EU, USA and Australia.

According to the Australian arm, Get Australia Standing, these campaigns aim to raise awareness and educate the community about:

… the dangers of sedentary working and prolonged sitting time.

The website also features a range of sit-stand work products and providers.

We are not suggesting Gavin Bradley skewed the sit-stand desk evidence in the guidelines. But the initial failure to disclose his interests is a concern.

No, sitting doesn’t cancel out exercise

In our study, we also found more than one-third of articles incorrectly warned that too much sitting cancels out the benefits of exercise.

This is contrary to recent research showing high levels of moderate intensity physical activity (about 60–75 min a day) seem to eliminate the increased risk of early death associated with high levels of sitting time (eight hours a day or more).

Most media reports claimed that sitting cancels out the benefits of exercise, which isn’t true. from

This rigorous study, analysing data from one million adults, also found this high activity level reduces, but does not remove, the increased risk linked to high levels of TV-viewing.

Yet, this study does not appear among the research resources on the Get Australia Standing campaign website, which appears to promote the message that it doesn’t matter if you are physically active, if you sit a lot you are doing yourself harm.

How realistic are the recommendations anyway?

Regardless of the media reporting of the guidelines, we need to ask ourselves how realistic the guidelines are.

The recommendations may be premature and hard to put into practice given that studies involving motivated participants have only managed to reduce the time spent sitting by 77 minutes in an eight-hour work day.

Workers may use sit-stand desks and they may reduce sitting time but the evidence is not yet in to show this produces detectable health benefits, at least in the short term. And standing too long at work has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

The guidelines also contrast with recently updated Australian national physical activity guidelines.

These make general recommendations to sit less and break up periods of uninterrupted sitting because the experts conclude the evidence does not point to a specific amount of sitting time at which harm begins.

The ConversationGiven the evolving research field and the vested interests, we need to pay attention to sitting time, standing, and physical activity levels as well as the role of industry players and their contribution to advice on health.


Catriona Bonfiglioli, Senior Lecturer, Media Studies, University of Technology Sydney and Josephine Chau, Lecturer in Prevention and Research Fellow in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The art and soul of Te Papa
88235 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Arts

The art and soul of Te Papa

by Sally Blundell

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, it is showing off its new dedicated art space.

Read more
Does chewing more help curb your appetite?
87918 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Does chewing more help curb your appetite?

by Jennifer Bowden

Our appetite-control hormones are affected by chewing, according to some studies, whereas others show no change.

Read more
How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the crowd to queen of the stage
88396 2018-03-16 09:42:00Z Music

How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the cr…

by Vomle Springford

Auckland rapper JessB is making her mark in the male-dominated hip-hop scene with the release of her much-anticipated debut EP Bloom.

Read more
Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more