Our modern lifestyle is very sedentary for many people – that is to say, we don’t just lack in medium to high intensity ‘exercise’, but we also spend long periods of time at work and at home, sitting or lying down, being completely inactive. Recent community initiatives outside of the health and safety profession have been making more of an effort to increase worker and public awareness of the dangers of too much sitting, coining phrases like ‘chair disease’ and publishing scare factor type campaigns such as ‘Sitting is Killing You’. But the truth may be even scarier; however we don’t fully understand all the risks yet. Nonetheless sufficient evidence has been collected by researchers globally to show us that this is an issue that we should take seriously.
The most widely publicised detrimental effect of sedentary habits is a reduction in metabolism (leading to increased rates of obesity) but there are a large number of other correlated health issues. As health and safety professionals we need to consider the trend of taking a holistic approach to workplace health and safety; not just protection from potential direct injury, but also the preservation of physical and mental wellbeing. We can see this holistic approach is evident in most workplaces now through the inclusion of anti-bullying and harassment policies, a protection primarily for mental wellbeing.
Other identified health risks of excessive sedentary behaviour are:
- Lower Abdominal Cancers,
- Mental Disorders,
- High Cholesterol,
- General Mortality,
- Cardiovascular Disease,
- Type 2 Diabetes,
- Fatal Myocardial Infarction, and
- Weight Gain.
Although a positive correlation does not indicate causation, the research so far indicates that increased sedentary behaviour is likely to increase the risk of these health issues in individuals who may be prone to them.
A 2003 survey of women aged between 25 and 30 years found that the average daily sitting time for full-time workers was 7.31 hours per day, while those engaged in full time household duties had a reduced total sitting time of 4.91 hours per day.
There is an increasing number of standing work stations or adjustable sit/stand desks available on the market, and it has been shown that standing (even still) can provide health benefits over sitting all the time. The muscles in the core and legs are engaged, and while both standing and sitting have the potential to increase static force on the lumbar spine, the difference in position is significant enough to constitute a rest break from each respective posture.
What Should You Do?
Traditional recommendations for minimum exercise levels have included things like 150 minutes a week, 30 minutes a day, 1 hour 3-4 times a week etc; but a 2009 study showed that prolonged sitting can have detrimental effects even if you meet these minimum exercise requirements. Those who took frequent breaks had a lower mean waist circumference than those who sat for the long periods of time, regardless of the total hours sitting per day.
While regular exercise should still be undertaken, you should also attempt to break up prolonged sitting periods with further ‘non-exercise activity’. This may include standing up and stretching every 30 minutes, taking a 5-10 minute walk around the block every 1-2 hours, and making an effort to walk to a colleague’s desk instead of calling or emailing. Increase fidgeting rather than sitting still in your chair as this can increase energy expenditure by about 50%, bringing it halfway between sitting still and standing up.
Prolonged sitting can have detrimental effects even if you exercise regularly
In the workplace, try to provide easy options for workers to vary their sitting and standing during the day. Communicate the health issues of sedentary behaviour, and encourage standing up and moving around. In some workplaces this may prove to be more of a challenge than others, for example in a call centre where staff must stay by the phone, however workers should understand that it is ‘ok’ to stand up if they need to.
Most importantly lead by example! Workers will be more interested and more confident in adopting new behaviours if they see managers and supervisors doing it first. It also reinforces that you see it as a genuine issue if you seem to be concerned about your own health rather than just trying to enforce another policy.