Lately, there have been several reports on the negative side effects of sedentary lifestyles. Some are calling it “the new smoking” and others are referring to the health risks of “chair disease.” The experts agree that the risk is significant, but much remains unknown about this emerging problem.
The survey says …
A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults who sat for 11 or more hours per day had a 40 percent higher chance of dying prematurely over the next 3 years compared with those who sat for fewer than 4 hours per day.
University of Sydney researchers reviewed the habits of more than 200,000 people. They found that inactive people who sat the most had double the risk of dying early compared with active people who sat least. Among the physically inactive group, those who sat the most had about a third higher chance of dying early than those who sat least.
Lead author Dr. Hidde van der Ploeg wrote, “These results have important public health implications. That morning walk or trip to the gym is still necessary, but it’s also important to avoid prolonged sitting. Our results suggest that the time people spend sitting at home, at work, and in traffic should be reduced by standing or walking more.”
Other research-based findings:
- Dr. James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic cites research linking sitting for long periods with obesity and metabolic syndrome (increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, elevated cholesterol, and excess mid-body fat). Too much sitting also appears to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
- Dr. Toni Yancey of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity concludes, “We just aren’t really structured to be sitting for such long periods of time, and when we do that, our body just kind of goes into shutdown.”
- Professor Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina found that men who spend too much time sitting, even those who exercise regularly, are at higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. He has studied a variety of innovations (such as an office redesigned for physical activity) and found that some lead to significant weight loss with no loss in productivity.
- A Miami University of Ohio study found that using a workstation that permits standing had a positive effect on body composition and blood lipids. Workers using a walking workstation over 12 months lost body weight and fat, and they grew lean muscle mass compared with workers who did not have the opportunity to walk while working.
Public health perspective
Dr. Amy Eyler, assistant professor of public health at Washington University in St. Louis, studies chronic disease prevention, mainly linked to physical activity. Although she cites a number of gaps in current research, Eyler concurs that too much sitting is definitely a health risk.
“Recent studies find this is true independent of whether you are physically outside of work. The risks are there even if you took a 30-minute jog today,” notes Eyler. She also cites research pointing to cognitive benefits of getting up and moving.
During prolonged sitting, the body basically becomes stagnant. “You don’t get a chance to reset the metabolism by moving around so it remains at a baseline level,” says Eyler. And although the number of calories burned while standing is not huge, the benefits add up over time.
If an employee moved from sitting to standing for about 3 hours a day, she could burn an additional 150 calories a day. That’s more than 35,000 calories a year; to lose one pound requires taking in (or burning) about 3,500 calories.
Asked what it will take to make changes in workplaces where employees have been standing for decades, Eyler says the answer is policy. Examples are rules that standing breaks be incorporated into any meeting lasting longer than an hour, or software prompts that tell people to get up every 30 or 60 minutes.
Peer behavior is another motivation, says Eyler. “On our floor, one person having hip problems got a sit/stand desk. I noticed I tend to get stiff when I’m entrenched in what I’m doing and how much better it felt to stand, so I got one, then two other people did as well. It’s contagious!”
Among other sit-less tips, Eyler recommends:
- Announcing occasional standing breaks and encouraging everyone to get up during meetings. This can be adapted to workplace training or seminars.
- Encouraging walking meetings when the weather and topic are amenable.
- Giving workers permission to get up and move during meetings when they feel the need. In some workplaces, this would require a culture change because it may be seen as rude behavior.
- Identifying “champions” who are passionate about health and standing. Invite them to create a committee to develop policy, strategies, and training to get people standing and walking more.
There will always be some individuals who will resist. “There’s going to be a percentage of the population that doesn’t want to change while others will see it as a benefit and be more likely to adopt it.”
Eyler is currently applying for a large grant to study the issue further. She hopes to fill the research gaps that her own research has uncovered.
Patrick McCrann is a triathlon coach and entrepreneur who help endurance athletes and regular folk perform at a higher level. He agrees that the big problem with sitting is that it causes a weakening of the muscles. “You’re in a state of rest, and nothing in your body is working, not the leg muscles or the back muscles.”
Because the chair is fully supporting the body while seated, the muscles do not have to work. “The longer you stay in that position the more challenges you’re going to have outside of that environment,” warns McCrann.
Employers who want to help employees become active and healthy need to encourage walking programs. That includes finding ways for them to stand for part of the workday in order to burn calories and develop strength.
“Standing is great for projects that require a quick turnaround, but isn’t as good for longer term tasks like writing,” McCrann advises. “For large projects, I will find a quality place to sit. But if I’m working on crushing my inbox answering e-mail and phone calls, standing is great for that.”
McCrann says it takes some effort to get into the habit of standing during the workday. Over time, employees will begin to make an association between standing and some types of work, much as they will grab a cup of coffee before starting a work task.
“Take the association away from something you’re ingesting, and substitute something natural and dynamic like moving,” he suggests.
Helping people see the risk of too much sitting is hard, McCrann acknowledges. “Smoking is bad because we know what it does to your body, but it’s harder to see with sitting because it’s not as insidious.”
Make it work
McCrann offers a number of ideas for getting the most out of standing. Being upright is beneficial at a basic level because it engages the core and is a more natural position than sitting.
“Then there are lots of things you can do while you’re standing,” He suggests. “You can change the surface with squishy pads that help with balance and coordination. I also keep stress balls at my desk, and I’ve had entire [phone] meetings where I’ve done yoga or stretched the whole time,” he adds.
Encouraging workers to stand can be easier than getting them involved in a worksite walking program, according to McCrann. “Everyone can stand, but if you have an exercise-based promotion, some people will not be able to do it. Standing reduces the barrier to entry.”
Sit/stand/walk stations are now available from several manufacturers, but the price point can be prohibitive. No worries, says McCrann. He’s actually created his own by placing a stepstool on top of his desk. He puts his laptop, monitor, and other items on the stool in order to create an inexpensive standing desk. The setup is easy to disassemble when he goes back to sitting.
Ready to step up to the plate?
Think your employees could benefit from more opportunities to walk on the job? There’s a lot you can do to move things forward.
- Ask vendors of sit/stand equipment to conduct a demonstration.
- Establish a walking subcommittee from your safety and health committee.
- Ask employees for ideas about how to get moving. Offer walking-related motivations such as water bottles, T-shirts, and socks.
- Check out resources such as the American Heart Association’s Start Walking program (www.startwalkingnow.org).
- Invite inspiring speakers to talk about the benefits of walking in their lives.
- Ask your insurance company about any ready-to-use walking programs they may offer at no charge.
- Get top leaders engaged and encourage employee participation through a “Walk with the Boss” program. Workers sign up for the chance to walk with your CEO and a small number of employees during lunch. Your CEO shows support for the program while employees get to spend time with the boss.