Are you thinking on your feet?

Workers who sit for long periods may double their risk of diabetes and heart disease | Illustration: Carolyn Ridsdale

Health researchers say sitting is jeopardising our health.

Updated 26 July 2016

Are you standing up while reading this? If not, perhaps you should be – experts agree the evidence is overwhelming: sitting down at work is killing us.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and articles published over recent years indicate that global workplaces need to transform offices and attitudes to improve our health, wellbeing, productivity – and, ultimately, save lives.

A compelling and wide-reaching meta‑analysis on sitting down at work was published in 2012.

Led by Dr Emma Wilmot, a research fellow at the Diabetes Research Group at the University of Leicester in Britain, it combined the results of 18 studies involving nearly 800,000 participants.

Wilmot and her team found that workers who sit for long periods doubled their risk of diabetes, heart disease and death.

Even they do an hour of exercise a day before or after work, it makes no difference if they are sitting still all day.

“If workplaces don’t take these issues on board, they may be faced with class action suits as workers blame their employers for health conditions developed after years of sitting down,” warns Professor Ron Plotnikoff, Chair in Physical Education and Population Health at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

Plotnikoff argues that research about the dangers of sitting at work is at the same stage now as we were a few decades ago with data revealing the dangers of smoking, hence his warning about legal repercussions.

Plotnikoff, who is also founding director of the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, says his team is researching what workplaces need to do to combat the effects of sitting.

“There is no magic bullet,” he says.

“We need a multipronged approach to the problem. What we face next is the complex set of attitudes of the workers themselves and management, plus the policies needed to change workplace physical environments and practices.”

A growing list of progressive workplaces in Australia, including LEGO, Microsoft, Comcare, Google, ANZ, Chevron, Optiva, Commonwealth Bank, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Hewlett-Packard – as well as many smaller technology companies, such as Freshview and SIRCA – offer employees integrated workplaces that include the option of standing at adjustable desks and participating in stand-up meetings.

One of the leaders in the emerging field of stand-up office design is interior architect Amanda Stanaway, a principal of Woods Bagot in Sydney. Stanaway argues that companies are not asking for just sit-down or stand-up desks, but a variety of spaces and usage options in the one workplace.

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“Many workstations are now height-adjustable so they can be used to sit or stand,” Stanaway says.

“They are easy to manoeuvre and let employees make their own choices; it’s not one size fits all. We’ve also found that you can’t just have one standing desk by itself; it’s better to have pods of stand-up desks, so you have multiple people standing up and no-one feels like the odd one out.”

Former SIRCA director of strategy and innovation, Paul McCarthy, says that in the nine months since the company moved to new premises in The Rocks designed by Woods Bagot, his 80 staff loved having different working, meeting and relaxation areas to choose from.

These include stand-up desks and a fully stocked stand-up breakfast bar. “The main thing that really took off is the stand-up meetings room with a variety of screens, whiteboards and corkboards," McCarthy says.

"Standing up makes meetings shorter, more focused and more agile.”

SIRCA offers employees the option of standing up at adjustable desks and stand-up meetings.

SIRCA offers employees the option of standing up at adjustable desks and stand-up meetings.

Stanaway also acknowledges that office design must be about encouraging work and productivity and believes that having treadmills (such as at the  GSK headquarters in Philadelphia) and stationary exercise bikes under desks is taking movement at work a step too far.

“There must be a degree of segregation between work and exercise and some of these things are just fads,” she says.

At the GSK Australia head offices in Melbourne, vice president and general manager Geoff McDonald says that since an office refit in 2010, which saw the introduction of standing desks (but no treadmills) and a hot‑desk layout, he’s personally feeling a lot fitter.

“It just dawned on me that I spent a lot of time sitting down all day, so now I consciously try never to be in one place for long," McDonald says.

"We have stand-up meetings. I’ll check my mail while standing. Then I’ll walk over to another desk and talk to someone. I feel better at night now that I’m on the move."

“We don’t mandate it, we all just do it.”

Dr Nicholas Gilson, a senior lecturer in physical activity and health at the University of Queensland, emphasises that it is not just about changing office layout – but, like GSK, about management leading by example.

“It’s the responsibility of management to transform office culture and practices; that it’s acceptable and expected that people can work either standing or sitting,” he says.

While in the Australian workplace employers are empowering workers to make their own choices, Gilson says that in Japanese workplaces, for example, alarms go off when employees must stand up, or in some places an animated reminder moves across the computer screen every half hour encouraging workers to move.

In others, activated pressure pads on your seat set off traffic lights on your screen that first flash an amber warning that it’s soon time to get up, then red, indicating it’s time to get up NOW!

Hitting the treadmill

Professor David Dunstan from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne acknowledges that using height-adjustable or stand-up desks may not be ideal for everyone.

“Some people have varicose veins or vascular conditions,” he says. “But you can have a footstool to rest one foot on or a fatigue mat for your feet. Workplaces need to assess and educate their workers before they introduce them; you can’t wear high heels, for example.”

Stand-up meetings, or meetings conducted while walking or using treadmills are the other options.

Dunstan says he has tried working on a treadmill himself but it has its practical limitations: “I was walking at about two miles an hour, which isn’t very fast, but I still found I could only do tasks – such as checking emails – that required minimal concentration. It’s a personal choice, but I prefer stationary, stand-up desks.”

The evidence stands

Standing up while you work is nothing new. Leonardo da Vinci, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all did it.

While we have a mounting body of evidence showing that sitting down all day is bad for us, until recently evidence to show the benefits of standing has been mostly anecdotal.

Leading the way in this new field is Dr Nick Gilson from the University of Queensland and his team, whose research demonstrates that taking breaks and working standing up improves employee performance, making them more focused, alert and energised and reducing the problem of “presenteeism”, when a worker may be present but mentally disengaged.

Meanwhile, Professor David Dunstan, head of physical activity research at Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, is collecting other data on the health effects of standing while you work.

His team’s research concludes that a two‑minute standing break for every 20 minutes seated, compared with sitting continuously for hours without a break, significantly improves the health of participants and reduces their risk of heart disease.

“We also found that people who took breaks from sitting improved their body function," Dunstan says.

"For example, they had 25 per cent lower blood glucose levels than those who remained sitting.”

Further, workers who had stand-up breaks burned 13 per cent more energy during the course of the day than their sitting colleagues.

Most recently, Dunstan’s team recruited just under 250 employees from the Victorian Department of Human Services who were using height-adjustable work stations over three months.

Dunstan’s team monitored their health at regular intervals to see how they changed, compared with another group that remained seated as they worked. Results of this study can be found here (PDF).

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