We’ve all heard that standing while working is better than sitting in reducing our risk for certain medical conditions including obesity and cardiac disease. However, a common question that we receive is the difference in calories burned between the two positions. There are three factors that determine how many calories you burn in each position – body weight, duration of the activity, and intensity of the activity. This article will explain basics of calorie burning and which position burns more calories.
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The Basics of “Calorie Burning”
The first thing we should do is to clarify a couple of terms used when discussing metabolism – caloric expenditure and metabolic equivalent. Caloric expenditure, also known as calorie burning, is the amount of energy that your body uses in a specific period of time. A metabolic equivalent (MET) is defined as the amount of oxygen used per minute while performing an activity. One MET is equal to 3.5 ml of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute while sitting at rest. This is often called your resting metabolic rate.
Caloric expenditure can be calculated by multiplying your body weight in kilograms by the duration of an activity in hours and the intensity of the activity in METS. The MET concept is a way to express energy expenditure for various activities as a multiple of the resting metabolic rate. For example, brisk walking may be given a value of 5.0 METS meaning that you will expend five times as much energy walking at a brisk pace then you will while sitting at rest.
Caloric Expenditure can be expressed by the following equation:
Caloric Expenditure = weight (kg) x time (hours) x intensity (METS)
After 12 months of testing 20+ electric standing desks the results are in!
Calculating Caloric Expenditure
Caloric expenditure can be determined directly by measuring the heat released by the body during an activity, or indirectly be measuring the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchanged in the body. These two methods are called direct calorimetry and indirect calorimetry. For many practical reasons, indirect calorimetry is the most commonly used and most accurate way to evaluate caloric expenditure during exercise.
While researching this article, I found several different algorithms for calculating caloric expenditure in standing and sitting. They all used the same basic equation described in the previous section, but the resulting number of calories burned per hour differed slightly. The activity intensity (number of METS) attributed to each position was the variable that caused these different values.
Most articles rated sitting from 1.2 to 1.3 METS while standing ranged from 2.0 to 2.5 METS depending on the intensity of work performed. For our purposes, I assumed that we were discussing a typical office worker with MET values of 1.2 for sitting and 2.0 for standing. If you do more active standing work that requires frequent use of your arms for lifting and reaching, the value of 2.5 might be more appropriate.
No matter which method you use, one thing is certain. The calories burned in any activity are directly related to your body mass, the duration of the activity, and the intensity of the activity. Therefore, we would expect standing to burn more calories than sitting since it is a slightly more intense activity. Although calorie calculators may give different values for the calories burned in each position, they consistently show a 20 – 50 calorie per hour increase for standing depending on your body mass.
If you are a larger person, you will burn more calories per hour in either position than someone who is smaller. For example, someone who weighs 220 pounds will burn more calories per hour than someone who weighs 120 pounds over the course of the day. The other variable is the length of time you are in a position. The longer you perform an activity or stay in a position, the more calories you burn over time. Standing or sitting for eight hours burns more total calories than standing or sitting for one hour.
Caloric Burn for Sitting vs Standing
|Calories Per Hour|
*Based on calculation using 1.2 METS per hour for sitting and 2.0 METS per hour for standing
A Counter Opinion
A recently published study reports that there is no significant difference in the number of calories burned in sitting or standing. The study examined the following activities: sitting using a laptop computer, sitting watching television, standing watching television, and walking at a self-selected pace ≤3.0 mph. The subjects performed each activity for 15 minutes with a 3-minute transition period between activities.
The results of the study showed that walking burned significantly more calories that either sitting or standing, but standing burned only slightly more than sitting. The authors concluded that you must be more active to see an appreciable difference in the caloric expenditure. One potential flaw in the study is that they compared sitting using a laptop to standing while watching television. They did not assess standing while using a laptop or performing work. It would be interesting to see whether their results would be different if they compared sitting while working and standing while working.
Standing has several health benefits and appears to burn more calories than sitting when performed for the same length of time. People with higher body mass who work in standing would burn significantly more calories per hour than people with lower body mass. However, some people have limited tolerance for standing due to other medical issues or orthopedic conditions such as osteoarthritis.
Someone with severe knee arthritis is unlikely to be able to work in a standing position for eight hours. In this case, the best solution would be to mix sitting and standing with short walks throughout the day. This mix will help to increase your metabolism with activity (walking), prevent low back pain from sitting, and reduce the risk for aggregating any preexisting musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis while standing.
Activities, such as walking, are better than sitting or standing for burning calories. However, standing while working burns more calories than sitting. The best plan to maximize calorie burning would be to mix sitting and standing throughout your day – maybe start with a 50/50 split if possible. Don’t forget to take breaks and go for short walks to increase your metabolic rate and to avoid “sitting disease.” This will give you the benefits of standing and increased calorie burning without causing soreness in the hips, knees, or ankles.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26693809 NEW STUDY – STANDING GIVES NO DIFFERENCE
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mets-activity-table/ METS for activities