The dangers of sitting have become a hot topic in the health sphere in the past few years, with some critics going as far as to call sitting “the new smoking.” While dramatic, the statement isn’t wrong. With smoking out of the way as one of the most dangerous threats to public health, the sitting epidemic takes the lead.
A study published in September found that no matter how much you exercise, sitting for excessively long periods of time is a risk factor for early death. The longer the duration of periods of sitting, the greater damage to your cardiovascular health over time.
Not only will standing during the workday help you avoid the dangers of excessive sitting, but a new study finds evidence that standing might actually make you a better thinker.
The study, conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University, found that standing enabled a quicker response to new information than sitting. To come to this conclusion, the researchers asked two groups of volunteers to complete a cognitive exercise called the Stroop test while either sitting or standing, respectively.
The Stroop test is based on the Stroop effect, which is the name used to describe the lag time our brains experience when attempting to process contradictory stimuli or information at once. You may have taken a Stroop test yourself at one point or another. In a Stroop test, you are presented with a list of colors spelled out, some printed in the corresponding color it names (the word ‘blue’ in blue ink), and some in a different color (the word ‘blue’ in red ink).
The test measures how quickly you are able to identify the colors. When the colors of the ink are mismatched to the printed names, it takes us a little longer to identify each color than it does when word and ink match. The time difference between the two serves as a measure of our brain’s processing speed.
In the study, the researchers had one group of volunteers complete the Stroop test while sitting, and one group while standing. The difference in their performance would suggest whether we process information more quickly while sitting or standing.
The volunteers who took the Stroop test while standing outperformed the sitting group by a meaningful margin. The standing group showed Stroop test differences (the difference in response time between matched and mismatched colors) of 100 milliseconds, while the sitting group had differences of 120 milliseconds.
That may not sound like a significant difference. However, consider how many different stimuli and pieces of information your brain is confronted with throughout a typical workday. Now multiply that difference across all those instances. The cumulative difference standing makes in your processing power throughout the day is pretty staggering.
Why does standing help us think better? Previous studies have demonstrated that mild levels of manageable stress actually stimulate cognitive performance. It’s about balance – too much stress inhibits cognitive performance, while too little leaves us complacent, also inhibiting performance. A small amount of stress also increases attention, which is important for cognitive performance and critical thinking.
Standing puts you in that sweet spot. It requires just enough extra physical and cognitive effort to create a mild level of stress that will boost your processing power. The difference may not be dramatic, but if you’re looking for a way to sharpen your thinking and increase your focus throughout the workday, you should look into buying a height adjustable desk.