We know that too much sitting can be a ‘bad’ thing right? After all sitting has been called the ‘new smoking’ – something I believe to be true in so far as a marketer’s dream; it’s uber sexy to describe sitting disease as the next chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (aka lung disease). Comparisons between these analogies aside, most of us can’t ignore the facts that sitting day in and day out is counter productive to our health and even our productivity. This post shares some of the facts that we know that sitting too much can do to us. It can be the framework that you need to sit less in your work day.
Is Sitting As ‘Bad’ As Smoking For Our Long-term Health?
Oh boy. There has been certain negative health consequences related to too much sitting. You’ve probably heard them before. Over the past 30 years, the number of people with diabetes has more than DOUBLED, on top of that 15% of all deaths per year are linked to diabetes. What about cancer? This research has found sedentary behaviour is associated with increased risks of endometrial (36%) and ovarian cancers (32%) and sedentary behaviour increases risk for all-cancer mortality (13%) and colorectal cancer-specific mortality (38% for pre-diagnosis sitting time; 61% for post-diagnosis sitting time). What about depression? This research has found a link between sedentary activities and depression, where several decades of evidence suggests that regular participation in exercise/physical activity promotes positive mood state, has anti-depressive effects, and can protect individuals from developing depression.
Even though research clearly shows how important limiting our sedentary (aka sitting) time is, there are no specific guidelines that exist regarding the amount of time that someone should spend in sitting postures.
Sitting too long at one time both at work and during leisure (who hasn’t done a Netflix binge-watching session?) increases your risk for developing chronic diseases… and … preterm death. There are simple things that you can do to reduce this risk. For instance there has been considerable evidence that just taking a simple break from the amount of sitting you do at once with either standing and light-to-moderate activity is linked to improved (metabolic) health.
It is widely discussed today that ‘sedentary breaks’ aka frequent and regular interruptions of continuous bouts of sitting has been recommended for health benefits… even when the amount of sitting time that someone does is (technically) the same. Interestingly it has also been found that replacing 1 hour of sitting with light intensity movement and even standing has been associated with lower cardiovascular disease markers and lower all-cause mortality.
Here’s the thing.
No long-term research (to this date) has shown associations between sedentary breaks and cardiovascular outcomes. It could be that there hasn’t been enough time to thoughtfully study this or maybe the recommendations surrounding sedentary activities aren’t very clear!! In saying that reducing sedentary time has been ‘flagged’ as having a potentially high public health impact. Even though there is no ‘concrete’ recommendations, some governments (like the UK and Australia) have already put into place ‘non-quantitative’ sedentary behaviour reductions in their public health guidance.
As guidance (and motivation!!!) here is what Australia is recommending for adults (there are guidelines for many age ranges):
Physical Activity Guidelines
Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.
Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines
Minimise the amount of time spent in prolonged sitting.
Break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.
So, how much sitting do you do in a typical day? This research surveyed over 49,000 adults in 20 countries and reported a median 5 hours of self-reported sitting in a day. Interestingly, the countries who tend to sit for more than 6 hours in a typical day are Taiwan, Norway, Honk Kong, Saudi Arabia and Japan. The countries who tend to sit for 3 hours or less are Portugal, Brazil, and Colombia. Since the 1960s, there has been a considerable increase (>40% for many countries) in time spent sedentary.
This research shines a light on how much standing you should do in a day:
Office workers should initially aim to incorporate 2 hours of standing during working hours (assuming a full working day) working up to 4 hours over the longer time. Assuming an average working day of 8 hours this equates to spending half our working lives standing. Sit-stand desks can facilitate reduced sitting and increased standing without impacting productivity. For example: standing does not affect typing speed. And, productivity over the longer term may actually be improved as regularly substituting sitting for standing has been shown to reduce the feeling of fatigue and musculoskeletal complaints, the latter of which is the primary source of lost productivity in the workplace.
Note: Despite the popularity of sit-stand desks to reduce sedentary time, this research has found that at present there is very low quality evidence that supports sit-stand desks reduce workplace sitting. However, it is important to note that any potential benefits of sit–stand workstations are likely to be considerably greater when their installation is accompanied by strategies targeting other influences on sitting time (i.e. knowledge, organizational policies and workplace norms).
How The Office Can ‘Align’ With This.
On a typical working day, half of our waking hours are spent in the workplace. This means that over the course of a lifetime, for most adults (and whether we like it or not!), a lot of time is spent at work. The workplace has a direct influence on the physical, social, economic, mental, and social well-being of workers and in turn the broader community. Given this, the workplace has been identified by the World Health Organization as a priority setting for health promotion and the idea of a ‘workplace sitting reduction program’. This study emphasizes that for regular postural change to be the norm and habitual, subconscious behaviour enabled by good workplace design, relevant organizational policies, high levels of knowledge, and a supportive organizational culture are required.
This very much relates to ergonomics as we like to emphasize the reduction of musculoskeletal symptoms through addressing time spent in prolonged, static postures including prolonged sitting.
How To Do It.
In all likelihood to accomplish something like this for the long-term you will need both the right people and the right culture. Raising awareness/knowledge, creating a supporting environment and building the right culture go hand-in-hand with this strategy.
Examples of ‘activity permissive’ or dynamic work environments from this research includes the following:
visible, easily accessible and appealing stairwells, showers, and bike storage racks.
education campaigns to increase awareness of the potential benefits of moving more and sitting less as well as prompts including posters and computer based prompts (such as emails)
centralizing printers and wastepaper baskets
‘just’ providing access to stairwells (as a start!)
‘activity permissive’ workstations includes sit-stand desks, with the proper strategies targeting other influences on sitting (as mentioned above)
allowing (or prompting) employees to break after 30 minutes of sitting and to stand during meetings (or other public spaces such as lecture halls in univiersities)
proper considerations to factors such as job design, existing office layout, privacy (noise, visibility) and equity
using a participative approach where employees are engaged in the changes, enlisting program ‘champions’ to role model strategies and promote the program. Using a strategy like this has been hypothesized as being incredibly useful at improving culture and long-term improvements.
demonstrated upper management support such as participation in the program
relevant modification to policies and practices (such as modifying dress codes to support the wearing of more ‘activity-friendly’ footwear)
I hope that his post changes your perspective about sitting for ‘too’ long in the office, the negative health consequences that it can have on our long-term health, and some ways that you can tangibly get change for you personally and on the larger scale your workplace.
I have a question for you. How long do you typically sit in a day and would you like to sit more or less? What are the barriers that could be standing (pun!) in your way? Leave a comment below!
If you are interested in reading more of this research, you can find it here, which was the foundation of this entire post.
One Last Thing…
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