Pitt researcher taking a closer look at sit-and-stand desks


Research by April Chambers, assistant professor in bioengineering, and others on all the studies done on sit-and-stand desks has been getting plenty of attention in the media lately, mostly focusing on evidence that the desks do not help with weight loss.

But maybe instead of focusing on what the desks can’t do, the research should study what they can help with, Chambers says.

Chambers — along with Nancy Baker, formerly of Pitt and now an associate professor in occupational therapy at Tufts University, and Michelle Robertson, executive director of the Office of Ergonomics Research Committee — analyzed the current research on the popular desks that allow users to work standing up or sitting down with the flick of a lever.

And yes, they did find that there is no evidence the desks contribute to weight loss. But that doesn’t mean there is no health benefit.

Chambers’ background is in occupational injury prevention, specifically in people who stand all day, like nurses and retail workers. She heads the Human Movement & Balance Laboratory in the Swanson School of Engineering.

When the sit-stand desks came out, they were promoted as a solution to the “sitting is the new smoking” mantra, but Chambers was looking at the opposite site of the coin — “don’t stand all day.”

“The sit-stand desk is an interesting tool to alleviate kind of both of those problems and figure out a way to find a happy medium,” she says.

“These desks, a lot of these tools, they hit the market before we really know if they work,” Chambers says. “And because this became so popular so quickly, there was such a splash of science on it. It was hard to decipher, just by a quick search, what was going on with the desks — if they had benefits, if they had drawbacks to them. Before really doing our own study on desks, we thought, well, what’s been done? Let’s get a clear picture of what’s out there.”

While weight loss and productivity didn’t seem to be affected by the desks, Chambers said, there were some other areas that companies weren’t really highlighting, like musculoskeletal discomfort. “The desks really seem to benefit people who have discomfort or low back pain,” she says.

The number of studies looking at this benefit was minimal, she said. “We really need to do more work in that area to better understand that. If that’s where the desks are helpful, let’s try to get the biggest bang for our buck in that area.”

Because her background is in the joint and muscle pain from standing all day, Chambers thinks she and her team can use those same objective measures and interventions to “try to figure out how best to use those desks as a tool to help workers who may be uncomfortable.”

Another area Chambers wants to look into is teaching people the best ways to use the sit-stand desks — how long should you stand and how often, what height should the screen and keyboard be?

“The sit-stand desk, it’s a tool, and like any other tool, if we don’t use it correctly,

we’re not going to get the most benefit from it,” she said. “I think that employers should teach (employees) how to set up their desk, teach them the appropriate height that it should be at when it’s raised. Things like that, basic ergonomics of the desk.

“And then the big question is how should we use them? And I think that question really depends on who’s using it.”

She hopes to study how people should use the desks depending on several factors, such as if you have lower back pain. “Perhaps my ratio of sitting to standing throughout the day that makes me most comfortable is different than someone who doesn’t have low back pain.”

Other factors in duration and frequency of use include age and weight. “But I think that we could come up with general guidelines,” Chambers said, to give people a starting point when they first get a sit-stand desk.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.