Is standing up all day bad for teachers' health?

From heart disease to varicose veins, standing up all day has health risks - but what can teachers do about it?

Gemma Corby

Teacher health and wellbeing: Is standing up all day is bad for you?

What impact does standing up all day have on your health? During the recent lockdowns, it was all about how sitting down too much is bad for you, with many people investing in a smartwatch to measure the number of steps walked each day.

But now we are back in the classroom, and a full day of teaching, plus lunch duties and after-school clubs, can leave us with aches and pains. So is standing for hours at a time good or bad for your health? Well, according to scientists, it does come with consequences.

The health dangers of teachers standing up for too long

1. Heart disease

In 2017, senior scientist and associate professor Dr Peter Smith published a 12-year study of 7,000 workers in Ontario, which found that people who primarily stand at work are twice as likely to develop heart disease, compared with those who mostly sit. The study took into account other factors, including age, gender and lifestyle choices.

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In the research, Smith explains: “Prolonged standing can [lead to] the pooling of blood in the lower limbs. This can result in hormonal responses and increases in oxidative stress, which over long periods of time can increase your risk of cardiovascular events [eg, heart attacks, strokes, angina, etc].”

2. Musculoskeletal problems

Dr Lawrence Woods, an experienced chiropractor, also warns about musculoskeletal problems: “Standing too long can cause hip pain or low back pain due to prolonged pressure on certain areas of your feet, such as your toes or ankles.”

When standing, the spine has a curvature that may increase the contact between the facet joints (connectors between the bones of the spine), causing inflammation and low back pain. This can be exacerbated as we age and the discs and facet joints in our spine begin to deteriorate.

3. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

Woods also warns of the dangers of prolonged standing in terms of suffering DVT. 

When you stand all day, vein walls can be damaged. As your heart has to work extra hard, fighting gravity to pump blood back up to the heart and lungs, your veins can end up swelling and staying filled with blood. This insufficient blood flow can lead to DVT and clotting – just as too much sitting down can. 

4. Varicose veins

“Prolonged standing has been associated with the risk of varicose veins,” says Smith. When you stand for a long period of time, it can cause blood to pool in the leg veins, increasing the pressure in those veins. Over time, this can cause the small valves inside to weaken, allowing the blood to collect in the vein, causing it to swell.

Women are at greater risk of developing varicose veins because of female hormones causing the veins to relax. This can be amplified further by taking birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Reducing the risks

So at what point do teachers need to reassess how long they are standing up for each day?

“You know when you're standing for a really long time and it starts to hurt? Well, that's because the blood is starting to pool in your legs instead of flowing through them smoothly like usual. That means less oxygen gets into those muscles so they start getting tired more quickly than normal,” says Woods.

So if you start to experience leg cramps, back pain, or your knees and legs feeling fatigued, it’s time for a rethink. But what can teachers actually do about it? Classroom teaching, after all, requires a lot of standing at the front, next to the board. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, sitting down a bit more will help.

“The best advice is to change positions often throughout the day. This goes for people who sit a lot and people who stand a lot, “ explains Smith. “Moving from sitting to standing to walking regularly throughout the day is likely the best strategy.” 

Woods echoes Smith’s advice and also suggests keeping your knees unlocked at all times: “You will disperse your weight into your joints and spinal discs if you stand with your knees locked…even though this tip is simple, it cannot be easily implemented. To master it, you will need to put in conscious effort every minute of every day for about four weeks.”

Woods also recommends wearing athletic shoes, instead of formal shoes, which can be problematic for teachers, unless they teach PE. It would be wise to give high heels a miss, as they force the lower spine into an increased curvature, putting greater pressure on the facet joints.

Additionally, elevating your legs above heart level helps your blood to flow, taking pressure off your heart and veins and reducing swelling. To reap the benefits, you will need to do it for at least 15 minutes.

So, there you go: a bona fide excuse to put your feet up in the evening. You’re welcome. And whatever you do, do not wait until you are in pain or serious discomfort before making an appointment with your GP.

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

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