Sitting is a health and safety risk: facts and frauds

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It was time for a nuanced story about the dangers of sitting for the human being. In the media it sais like this:”sitting is deadly” or “sitting is the new smoking”. It gives a very negative spin on these everyday activities. Alternatives to sitting work are presented as the ultimate goal. The associated products as Holy Grail. But what is actually known about the risks of sitting scientifically? And what solutions may work or would not? What are the facts and frauds about sitting at work? 

Is sitting deadly? 

In recent years there has been a lot of research published on the effects on human health of prolonged sitting. Where particular emphasis was on complaints of the musculoskeletal system (for example complaints on back, neck, shoulders, arms, hands etc.) has the attention now shifted to overall health. In a recent study 60% of the respondents had the idea that people who sit longer at work die at an earlier age than on average.

At broad level you can imagine that sitting more per day is associated with a higher probability of health problems like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Wilmot and others, 2012). Also several studies have shown that people who sit longer (more than 11 hours per day) on average have a greater chance of premature death than those who sit less (less than 4 hours a day) (e.g. van der Ploeg and others, 2012). The biggest culprit seems to be watching TV with computer use taking second place….. The problem is not so much the office chair but the inactivity during sitting. Scientists call for attention to the effects of this sedentary lifestyle in which people sit most of the day instead of light or moderate activity. (Paper Haigh et all 2013) 

However the exact mechanisms are still not very well known. Is it just the total duration of inactivity or is the timing and duration of interruptions more important? In short it is too simplistic to argue that prolonged sitting at work leads to earlier mortality. Of course, the hours of sitting count towards the total amount of inactivity. By using this time at work in a more active way, health gains can be achieved.

Sports then?

More than 40% of respondents thought that sports does not contribute to reducing heath risk’s. The research shows however, that sports can indeed mitigate the risk: people who get enough exercise have a lower chance of premature death  than people who are inactive. But active people that sit regularly will still have more health problems than active people that limit sitting.

It is actually like smoking. People who smoke have on average a higher chance of early death than people who do not smoke. But the people who smoke and get enough exercise do reduce their risk of premature death due to sitting. However, they lower their risk of premature death as a result of smoking. They really need to quit smoking.

The efficiency of moving whilst working 

Ever worked on a bicycle behind the desk or stepping on a treadmill? And how did you rate that? Was productivity was higher than normal? Almost 60% of the participants recon that moving during work will increase productivity by 30% (Commissioner and others, 2011). The participants performed a reading task 20% to 30% faster when they cycled at the same time. But if they read the text as good as sitting is not measured. Such a large positive result is never found in subsequent studies. 

What participants did report after testing the moving work tools is that they feel physically and/or mentally fitter at the end of a session. Of the 26 call center employees of Scottish Widows in Stirling that worked on a desk bicycle (Oxidesk) 82% said they felt physically fitter after a session on this dynamic piece off furnityre supplied by Office Furniture Glasgow. Also  59% felt mentally fitter after a session on the Oxidesk. And 77% said the concentration while cycling was equal or better than sitting still (Fira, 2013).

Stuff to get us moving 

If we really want to sit less and move more at work, it is insufficient to only puchase dynamic office furniture and accessories. The resources should fit in with the work an office worker does. Simple solutions such as promoting the use of stairs (there are even organizations that forbid the use of the elevator unless there is a medical need…) and the offering of lunch packets for during a walk, are among those of the most effective ones. Although companies can be proud of their progressive approach, the staff in General don’t notice too much difference. It is therefore not sensible to promote dynamic furniture heavily. Employees should preferably make the choice themselves for the right solution for them and their job. 

Dynamic furniture and related accessories are an important tool, but definitely not a panacea. They are sometimes portrayed as a nice gadget or to make a good statement, but when ‘sit less and move more’ is not part of the policies and culture of the Organisation, then the use of these resources is not sustainable. 

The central question was whether sitting work should be recognized as the new health and safety risk. After all, sitting in the workplace is common and could make a major contribution to an inactive living and working style. Health risks are lurking. No less than 88% found prolonged sitting at work an employment risk. Scientific research doesn’t support that statement just yet. That does not mean that there is not sufficient support from science that the interruption of prolonged sitting with small move moments does improve general wellbeing, whether it is at work or at home. “