The perils of sitting too long

Recently, there have been headlines in the paper and online that could scare you out of sitting ever again. Some of the headlines include: Sitting can kill you and The health hazards of sitting.

But how much of this is true and what can employers and workers do about it?

It's imporatnt to consider the ergonomic, biomechanical and medical evidence to determine separate fact from fiction.

Researchers out of Cornell University, New York University and the University of Waterloo are finding people in the workplace are spending an average of eight hours sitting on a non-workday and 10 hours sitting on a workday.

One of the very first studies to look at the health hazards of prolonged sitting was published in 1953 in the Lancet. In this study, bus conductors in London, who worked on their feet collecting fares, and bus drivers, who spent their workday sitting were compared in terms of risks for coronary heart disease and mortality. These rates doubled in seated drivers compared to standing and dynamically moving conductors.

After this study was completed there occurred few if any studies examining the medical impacts of sedentary behaviour such as sitting in the workplace. Research instead tended to focus on the role of physical activity in promoting health outcomes  and on the biomechanical loads associated with static sitting postures in the workplace. 

In 2012, the Leicester Diabetes Centre conducted a review of 18 studies that included 794,577 participants. The purpose of this review was to examine the association of sitting time with the development of diabetes, cardiovascular disease (morbidity) and mortality. The results illustrated that greater exposure to sedentary time is significantly associated with an increased risk of diabetes, and cardiovascular disease and death. 

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2013 reported that adults in the United States who engaged in moderate quantities of sitting time (three to six hours per day) to high (more than six hours per day) had higher waist circumference, body mass index (BMI), triglycerides and insulin compared with adults in the lowest category of sitting time (less than three hours per day).
With respect to the impact of sitting and back pain, this is very well studied at the University of Waterloo in Ontario where it is found through numerous anatomical and cadaver studies that sustained axial compression of our spine (sitting) reduces the metabolic activity within our spinal discs which speeds up the rate of disc degeneration and cellular death. This performed day in day out has serious implications to the long-term health of our discs of the spine and lower back pain.  

This research is not meant to scare people into standing all of the time or to encourage people to purchase the treadmill desks for which there is very little hard evidence for improved health or spinal health outcomes.

Rather, we would prefer that employees realize there is solid evidence in the literature to ensure that with sitting in the workplace there needs to be a change in work health behaviours. Employees should read this information in order to be motivated to make small but significant changes in their work habits. This includes the simple action of standing up at a maximum of 30 minutes at a time for short periods of time and using their task chairs to move while seated. 

Share these tips with employees to help them decrease how much time they spend sitting:

• Create an alert on your phone or computer to remind you to stand for one to two minutes every 30 minutes.
• Do not bring your exercise ball to the office. Use the well-designed task chair you have in place and use the exercise ball in the gym.
• Stand during impromptu meetings.
• Take your phone calls in a standing position.
• Move your printer off of your desk and out of reach so you have to stand and walk to access printed material.
• Don’t email a co-worker. Stand up and talk to them.
• Use the dynamic modes built into your task chair. Move the lever which allows the chair to rock during long phone conversations and meetings or when reviewing documents. 

This article was co-authored by Alex Hardie and Jacob Thadickal from Optimal Performance Consultants.