Sedentary behavior, or too much sitting, is increasingly becoming part of the modern lifestyle. You’re probably sitting down right now as you’re reading this, or perhaps even lying down. Sitting has become the main body position of most of our activities. For instance, you take a seat when you work at your desk. You grab a chair when you go to a meeting. And then plop down on the couch to watch TV to relax at the end of the day. 

The number of research about sedentary behaviors in the workplace has increased rapidly over the past decade. In this post, I’m going to give an overview of sedentary behaviors in the workplace by addressing some of the latest insights and findings on this area of research, including the positive effects of breaking up sitting time on cognition, the psychosocial influences of taking breaks, and different interventions to reduce sedentary behavior at work.

The Latest Research on Sedentary Behavior

The human body is designed to move. For many years, most of the workforce engaged in some kind of physical labor, and their job duties required physical movement throughout the day. But due to the shift towards more technical and office-based jobs, work today is far less physically demanding. As a result, people spend more time sitting than ever before. With lesser physical challenges, it’s no surprise that a sizable proportion of the workplace is facing the physical consequences of inactivity and lack of movement—a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and early death. 

Breaking Up Sitting Time

Are you forgetful at work? Your desk job might be the culprit. This is because uninterrupted sitting also affects our cognitive processes. Prolonged (excessive) sitting has been associated with poor executive function, memory, attention, and visuospatial skills, which are essential cognitive features of work performance. But this decline in cognitive performance can be prevented by sitting less and moving more throughout the workday.

In fact, one significant study from the BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders explores the potential benefits of breaking up prolonged sitting time on cognitive function among sedentary office workers. The findings from this mapping review revealed that breaking up prolonged sitting with standing or light-intensity exercises is viewed as a potential measure in improving cognition by mitigating the ill effects (aberrant vascular and hormonal changes) associated with excessive sitting.  

For some employees, however, breaking their sedentary habits may take a while. Even though taking breaks can improve cognitive performance and reduce health risks, research has indicated a growing trend of office workers refraining from taking breaks at work. A recent study from health psychologists at Staffordshire University explores the psychological and social influences on employees' break-taking behavior. This involved asking groups of office workers of differing levels of seniority regarding their lunch break habits.

The key themes that emerged from this analysis included:

  • People's behaviors depend on multiple factors. 
  • The influence of social and work relationships—employees are unlikely to initiate taking breaks unless they see their colleagues take breaks too.
  • People who feel that work commitments override all other factors are less likely to take a break even if someone wants to take a break.
  • Feelings of guilt and anxiety about taking time away from the desk were also common. 
  • Being 'fair game' for work-related matters if you remain at your desk at break times.

Interventions to Reduce Sedentary Behavior

Considering all the negative health outcomes associated with sedentary behavior, there have been many research efforts focusing on the different intervention approaches designed to reduce sedentary behavior among office workers. 

Here are some of the latest research findings that you should know about:

1. Effectiveness of Physical Activity Program 

When comparing the effects of physical activity and sedentary behavior on the reduction of health risks, it has become an interesting query whether increasing physical activity has more impact compared to reducing sedentary behavior. Past interventions aimed at increasing physical activity or reducing sedentary behavior have revealed diverse effects.

A study carried out by Nooijen and colleagues (2020) aims to address this question. This three-arm cluster randomized controlled trial assessed whether multi-component interventions, focusing on changes at the individual, environmental, and organizational levels, either increased physical activity or reduced sedentary behavior, compared to a passive control group. The researchers found that both multi-component interventions focusing on either physical activity or sedentary behavior were unsuccessful at increasing device-measured physical activity or reducing sedentary behavior compared to a control group. 

Similar to previous studies, the researchers found that changing behavior is a huge challenge. A surprising finding was that more people dropped out from the sedentary behavior intervention compared to the increased physical activity intervention. 

2. Using Scare Tactics to Change Sedentary Behavior

Scare tactics are commonly used as a prevention strategy with the intention of getting the desired behavior. It’s often used in public health campaigns like anti-smoking and anti-drunk driving campaigns.

But here’s the thing: they work for short-term behavior change, but they’re not remarkably effective for long-term behavior change.

One notable scare tactic endeavor was the Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial conducted by Rollo and Prapavessis (2020). In their study, they used the motivational phase of the Health Action Process Approach (HAPA) to find out if sedentary behavior and diabetes information is a meaningful source of motivation to decrease daily sitting time among pre-intending office workers. 

Participants were randomized into HAPA-intervention (sedentary behavior), HAPA-attention control (physical activity), or control (no treatment) conditions. Following the treatment, purpose-built sedentary-related HAPA motivational constructs (risk perception, outcome expectancies, self-efficacy) and goal intentions were assessed. The findings from this research showed that a brief HAPA-based online intervention providing information regarding sedentary behavior and diabetes risk may be an effective source of motivation.

3. Intervention Outside the Workplace

Workers spend more than 50% of their leisure time sitting. This supports previous evidence claiming that if someone is sedentary at work, they’re also sedentary outside working hours. Even though interventions targeted outside of workplace settings are still an emerging research topic, it’s important to discuss them.

A recent study that included data from 1770 participants found that interventions outside the workplace to reduce sedentary behavior probably make little or no difference in device-measured sedentary time in adults under 60 years of age in the short term. It’s currently unclear what interventions outside of the workplace (if there’s any) might be effective for reducing sedentary behavior. 

Take-home messages

The advantages of getting out of the chair regularly and incorporating movement throughout the workday to employees are clear. As Ergonomic Consultants, there are some simple and effective measures that we can teach our clients to reduce the risk of sedentary behavior, such as walking to a coworker’s desk to hand-deliver information instead of sending emails, encouraging staff to eat lunch away from their workstation, or arranging a standing meeting.

It’s important to note that a change in office culture is only possible if the management is willing to support such measures. Those few minutes spent standing or moving are not only valuable for the employee’s health but also for the organization. 

So those are some of the notable researches on sedentary behavior today, but don't limit yourself! If you’re interested to see more up-to-date findings and facts, the Accelerate program could work for you. We have a curated literature review released every month to help you keep up with the latest research so you can share the information with your clients and audience.  

In the meantime, check out this amazing 3-part series about ergonomics that is absolutely required to start and market your ergonomics services in a digital age. Click here to earn more.



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