Are you sitting on the job?

If you were told your office chair was a lethal piece of equipment that increased your risk of an early grave the longer you sat on it, what would you do?

Regardless of how fit we are, sitting all day is worse for our health than we thought.

Are your fingertips the only body part guaranteed a workout from a day at the office? If so, it’s time to take a stand for your life.  

If you were told your office chair was a lethal piece of equipment that increased your risk of an early grave the longer you sat on it, what would you do? Jump out of your chair?  Right answer.

Standing up, often, is exactly what “inactivity physiologists” want office workers to do.  This new breed of scientist knows the really scary news about sitting down for hours on end.

Exercise buffs – don’t tune out – because even if you work out frequently, that doesn’t protect you from an otherwise sedentary life. That’s the finding of a growing body of research, including a 2010 study following 8000 Australian adults published in Circulation. The study found that every extra hour spent in front of the television (a proxy measure for sitting) increased the risk of dying by heart disease as much as 18 per cent. This was true even among adults who exercised regularly.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that simply standing up and bearing your own weight regularly is remarkably health enhancing.

Do you know the highest risk occupations for exposure to prolonged sitting?

  • Office workers
  • Transport Industry workers (e.g. taxi, bus and truck drivers)
  • Highly mechanised trades (e.g. crane and bulldozer operators)

So why isn’t exercise protective against the effects of prolonged sitting and why does standing count? Assuming adults sleep eight hours a day, and do 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day, that still leaves 15 hours of non-exercising time. If much of that time is sedentary (just count the hours you sit between breakfast and bed) then that interferes with our normal metabolic processes.

Animal studies suggest lack of large muscle contraction is largely to blame. When our muscles “sleep”, an enzyme present in skeletal muscle that breaks down blood fats, lipoprotein lipase, is suppressed. The breakdown and use of blood sugar is also reduced. The result? Elevated blood glucose and blood fats (triglycerides), which are key risk factors for cardio-metabolic health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.   

Standing was formerly considered a sedentary behaviour because it didn’t use up much energy. Now it’s set to take centre stage in physical activity recommendations, due to its protective effect resulting from stimulating muscle contraction and thereby the muscle enzymes involved in processing fats and sugars. That’s why you are likely to start hearing “sit less and stand more” as well as the call to 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily.

Scientists are still working out exactly how often we need to interrupt periods of sitting, but the standard ergonomic advice to break every 30 minutes seems a reasonable guide.

A few minutes of movement every hour is a far cry from what our bodies are designed to do. Female hunter-gatherers walked an average of nine kilometres a day, and men 15 kilometres a day, every day of their lives, according to Harvard Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology Daniel Lieberman.  In contrast, 2010 research conducted by the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute and the University of Queensland found that the average office worker spends 75 per cent of the day planted on their behind.

So why isn’t exercise protective against the effects of prolonged sitting and why does standing count?  

At the Australian Government Department of Human Services, 320 office workers are involved in the first phases of a world-first research trial, designed to address the issue of too much sitting in the workplace. Lead researcher, Associate Professor David Dunstan of Melbourne’s Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, is attempting what might seem the impossible – to make regular standing breaks our default mode of working.

Big hopes are riding on the sit-stand workstations, which are a key feature of the intervention. Can we truly re-engineer the way we work? The answer is a good three years away, but the experience of participants is promising.

“I tend to stand for talking and emails, and sit down for more complex, focused tasks,” says one worker, “Jane”.  “I’ve got used to it now and some days I stand more than I sit.”

DHS’ call centre staff is also involved, and some are enjoying benefits beyond metabolic health.  “I feel more alert talking to customers on the phone when standing,” says one call centre worker, who also enjoys their standing meetings. “When we do an agenda item standing up, people are a lot more engaged.”

10 ways to take a stand at work

  1. Stand and take a break every 30 minutes, at the least every hour
  2. Try standing meetings – at least for a few items
  3. Take a brisk walk during your lunch break
  4. Conduct one-to-one discussions with a colleague walking outdoors 
  5. Use the stairs
  6. Stand during phone calls
  7. Consider a height adjustable desk so you can work sitting or standing 
  8. Stand at the back of the room during presentations
  9. Get on and off public transport one stop earlier
  10. Where possible, walk and talk to colleagues versus emailing

Thea O’Connor is a workplace writer, speaker and educator.

October 2021
October 2021

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