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Why Standing in One Place Makes Your Legs More Sore Than Walking

standing still

Story at-a-glance -

  • Standing still requires constant activity from a few muscles to keep you upright; walking helps to distribute the burden
  • Your heart can’t pump blood as effectively when you’re standing still, which may lead to swollen legs and feet
  • Standing is far preferable to excess sitting, but ideally you should move around regularly rather than simply standing still

By Dr. Mercola

Some 10,000 publications have shown that excessive sitting is harmful to your health, irrespective of other lifestyle habits, including an excellent exercise program. There are at least 24 different chronic diseases and conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, associated with excess sitting.

As the health risks continue to mount, many people have converted their workstations from sitting to standing, myself included, and there are many benefits to doing so.

Why Standing Is Generally Better Than Sitting…

According to Dr. Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, when you have been sitting for a long period of time, within 90 seconds of getting off your bottom and standing up the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol — which are mediated by insulin — are activated.

As soon as you stand up, a series of molecular mechanisms at the cell level set off a cascade of activities that impact the cellular functioning of your muscles. The way your body handles blood sugar is beneficially impacted, for example. Therefore, disease prevention for diabetes comes into play.

All of these molecular effects are activated simply by weight bearing – by carrying your bodyweight upon your legs. Those cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuels into your cells. Dr. Levine says

"It makes perfect sense… If you've been resting after a hard morning's work and then you get back on your legs in order to go back into the fields. Of course, your whole body system is to be pushing what you've just had for lunch into your muscle, into your body so that you can function well in agricultural practice, which, up until 200 years ago, was what the human body ultimately functioned to do.

The nature of the human body was to be active and moving all day. The body was never designed to be crammed into a chair where all of these cellular mechanisms get switched off. Obviously we're supposed to rest from time to time. But that rest is supposed to break up the activity. It's not supposed to be the way of life.

This very unnatural [sitting] posture is not only bad for your back, your wrists, your arms, and your metabolism, but it actually switches off the fundamental fueling systems that integrate what's going on in the bloodstream with what goes on in the muscles and in the tissues. As a consequence of that, blood sugar levels are inappropriately high in people who sit.

The blood pressure is inappropriately high, the cholesterol handling is inappropriately high, and those toxins, those growth factors that will potentially lead to cancer, particularly breast cancer, are elevated in those people who sit too much. The solution? Get up!"

Standing Still Isn't the Idea…

Going from a seated position to a standing one is highly recommended, but the idea is not to simply exchange sitting in one place for standing in one place. This latter scenario may also be problematic over time (although possibly less so than sitting).

If you've ever had to stand in one place for a long period of time, you know how painful it can be – even more so than the same amount of walking. Today I Found Out recently reviewed six reasons why this is the case:1

1. Constant work for a few muscles — When you stand, your legs are constantly under pressure. Muscles in your calves must make small adjustments to keep your balance, which tires your legs out. When you walk, the burden is distributed across a greater number of muscle groups, including those in your core, thighs, calves, buttocks, and even your arms.

2. No rest — Standing requires constant support from your feet and legs. Each foot and leg supports about half of your body's weight with no resting period. When you walk, the weight shifts from one side to the other so each of your legs and feet get a regular (albeit quick) break.

3. Pooling blood — Your heart cannot pump blood very efficiently from your feet back up the length of your body while you're standing still, which is why standing may lead to swelling in your feet and lower legs. When you walk, muscle contractions help your heart to pump more effectively.

4. Harder on your feet — When you stand, your body weight tends to rest on the balls and heels of your feet, with no relief. When you walk, the weight is distributed to different parts of your feet.

5. Mentally challenging — Standing in one place can be boring, leaving your mind unoccupied, and free to focus on how tired your legs and feet are. Walking tends to occupy your mind as you're exposed to varying environments and must at the very least be alert to potential obstacles in your path.

6. Walking releases feel-good chemicals — Walking briskly or jogging triggers your body to release feel-good chemicals like endorphins to improve your mood. Adrenaline is also released, which pumps your heart faster and allows more oxygen to reach your muscles and brain. This does not occur when you stand in one place.

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Is a Treadmill Desk Preferable to a Standing Desk?

Considering that walking may be easier on your legs and feet than standing still, it may seem like a treadmill desk would be the superior choice over a standing workstation. A study published in the journal Preventive Medicine analyzed 23 active desk studies (which includes both stand-up desks and treadmill desks) and found both reduced sedentary time and improved mood.2

However, I believe standing workstations are preferable to treadmill desks, as more than 24,000 people are treated for treadmill-related injuries each year.3 SurveyMonkey CEO David Goldberg passed away tragically earlier this year from a severe head trauma sustained after slipping from a treadmill… so using one while being distracted with work probably isn't ideal.

A far better option is to use a standing workstation while at the office and then use a pedometer to be sure you're walking for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. Also, you'll want to break up your periods of standing still with movement – whether that be a quick stroll around your office, a set of burpees, or alternating one foot on a stool.

Benefits of a Standing Workstation

The above-mentioned study revealed the following physical benefits from standing desks:4

Standing desks boost heart rate by about eight beats per minute, while treadmill desks increased it by 12 beats per minute

Standing desks may boost HDL (good) cholesterol

Using a standing desk for three months led to weight loss

We are in the process of providing all our employees at standing desk options. If you have a sit-down job, I would strongly encourage you to present this information to your employer and get a stand-up desk. Keep in mind, too, that the benefits of switching to a standing desk are not only physical in nature. Some of the best benefits are actually related to your psychological health. As Fast Company reported:5

"In one seven-week study of standing desk use, participants reported less fatigue, tension, confusion, and depression, and more vigor, energy, focus, and happiness — and when they went back to their old desks, their overall mood returned to baseline levels."

Even better, the standing workstations appeared to have little negative impact on employees' ability to carry out their jobs. For instance, a sit-stand workstation led to no difference in characters typed per minute or typing errors.6

Regular Walking Is a Required Movement

Although I recommend standing (as opposed to walking) while at your desk, regular walking throughout your day is a basic requirement for optimal health, like drinking adequate amounts of water and getting sufficient sleep. Your body is designed for frequent movement and many researchers are now starting to reemphasize the importance of walking. According to Katy Bowman, a scientist and author of the book: "Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement:"7

"Walking is a superfood. It's the defining movement of a human."

For example, one study found that walking for two miles a day or more can cut your chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by about half.8 Another study found daily walking reduced the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60.9 Walking for at least an hour or two could cut a man's stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn't matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds.

The elderly and those struggling with chronic disease that prevents them from engaging in more strenuous fitness regimens would also do well to consider moving around more. While walking is often underestimated, studies show you can reap significant health benefits from it. Taking a walk during your lunch hour can have a significant impact on your mood and help reduce work-related stresses, for instance.10

Walking was also found to improve quality of life for depressed middle-aged women. Those who averaged at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise or just over 3.25 hours of walking each week reported feeling more energized and more social at their three-year follow up. They also reported feeling less pain.11

How to Integrate Less Sitting and More Standing and Walking into Your Life

Committing to sitting less is more of a mindset than a physical feat. It will take some getting used to, but you'll find standing and moving around feels every bit as natural, and, really, even more so, than sitting. If you work in an office, converting to a standing workstation will be important, but you should also strive to stand or move around while you watch TV, talk on the phone, and any other time possible.

In addition, moving is important too, not just standing still. In one study, those who stood up for two minutes an hour did not reap the benefits that those who walked for two minutes an hour did.12 I recommend using a pedometer, or better yet, one of the newer wearable fitness trackers, to find out how far you normally walk.

Taking 10,000 daily steps, which is highly recommended, means you've walked about five miles or 9 kilometers. Many people do not get close to reaching this goal, which is why fitness trackers can be so useful. According to the UK's National Health Service (NHS), the average person only walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps per day.13

You can break up your daily steps into any size increments that work for you. You might walk for one hour in the early morning, 30 minutes during your lunch hour, and another hour in the evening. Or you might enjoy taking shorter 20-minute walks throughout your day. I personally am doing about 14,000 to 15,000 steps a day, which I can achieve by taking a daily 90-minute walk. Other simple ways to increase your physical movement and avoid sitting down at work and elsewhere include:

Organize the layout of your office space in such a way that you have to stand up or walk to reach oft-used files, the telephone, or your printer, rather than having everything within easy reach.

Use an exercise ball for a chair. Unlike sitting in a chair, sitting on an exercise ball engages your core muscles and helps improve balance and flexibility. Occasional bouncing can also help your body interact with gravity to a greater degree than sitting on a stationary chair. But this is a concession and it is still sitting, so standing would be a better option.

Alternatively, use an upright wooden chair with no armrest, which will force you to sit up straight, and encourage shifting your body more frequently than a cushy office chair.

Set a timer to remind you to stand up and move about for at least two to 10 minutes each hour. You can walk, stand, or take the opportunity to do a few simple exercises by your desk. For an extensive list of videos demonstrating such exercises, please see my previous article, Intermittent Movement Benefits Your Health. Here's How to Get More of It into Your Work Day.