With evidence mounting that sitting for long stretches of time is unhealthy, many of us naturally wonder how best to respond. Should we stand up, or is merely standing insufficient? Must we also stroll or jog or do jumping jacks?
A new study offers some helpful perspective, suggesting that even a few minutes per hour of moving instead of remaining in a chair might substantially reduce the harms of oversitting.
As most of us have heard by now, long bouts of sitting can increase someone’s risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, kidney problems and premature death. These risks remain elevated even if someone exercises but then spends most of the rest of his or her waking hours in a chair.
In a representative and sobering study being published next month in Diabetologia, scientists found that every hour that overweight adults spent watching television, which is a handy way to measure sitting time at home, increased their risk of becoming diabetic by 3.4 percent. Most of the participants were watching nearly three hours a day.
But despite such health concerns, simply advising people to abandon their chairs and stand all day is impractical. Many of us who have experimented with standing or treadmill desks have discovered that they can have their own deleterious impacts on typing accuracy, general productivity and our lower backs.
So what reasonable steps could and should people take throughout the day to reduce sitting time?
To help to answer that question, researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and other institutions recently turned to the immense trove of data available in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which annually asks a cross section of Americans about how they eat, exercise, feel and generally conduct their lives.
Recently, as part of the data collection process, some participants have begun wearing monitors that objectively track their movement patterns. (Otherwise, the data relies on people’s recall of activities, which can be unreliable.)
The researchers gathered monitor data for 3,626 adult men and women, most of whom reported being generally healthy at the start of the study period.
Using standard activity measurements, the researchers then divided each of these participant’s days into minutes spent sitting; participating in low-intensity activity (since the monitors couldn’t pick up changes in posture, but only in bodily movements, they couldn’t measure standing per se); engaging in light-intensity activities, such as strolling around a room; or doing moderate to intense activities, such as jogging.
Most of the participants spent most of each day sitting.
The scientists then checked death records for three or four years after the survey, to determine how many of the participants had passed away during that time.
They used the resulting numbers to statistically determine participants’ overall risk of premature death and what role sitting or not sitting had played in that risk, as well as the relative importance of what someone did instead of sitting.
In other words, the scientists wanted to see whether standing, walking or jogging in lieu of sitting was best at extending lifespans.
What they found was unexpected. A low-intensity activity like standing, by itself, had little effect on mortality risk. Those people in the study who spent a few minutes each hour engaged in such low-intensity activities did not show much if any decline in death risk, compared with those who sat the most.
But those who walked around after standing, replacing some of their sitting time with a light-intensity activity like strolling, gained a substantial benefit in terms of mortality risk.
In fact, if they replaced as little as two minutes of sitting each hour with gentle walking, they lowered their risk of premature death by about 33 percent, compared with people who sat almost nonstop.
The researchers found an additional reduction in mortality risk if people engaged in moderate exercise instead of sitting, although the numbers of respondents who jogged or leapt about instead of sitting was so small that statistical determinations were difficult.
Over all, the study’s findings are “encouraging,” said Dr. Srinivasan Beddhu, a professor of medicine at the University of Utah, who led the study. They are especially so since the benefits seem to be additive, he said. Someone who already is walking for two minutes per hour and now starts to walk two minutes more — displacing an additional two minutes of what had been sitting time — could reduce his or her risk of premature death even more than from walking two minutes alone.
This reduction in death risk is likely related to energy balance, Dr. Beddhu said. Strolling instead of sitting increases the number of calories that someone burns, potentially contributing to weight loss and other metabolic changes, which then affect mortality risk.
But because this study is observational, he said, it doesn’t prove that walking instead of sitting directly reduces death risk, only that the two are associated.
Still, the possible benefits of strolling more often around the office seem alluring and the risks slight, especially if you invite your boss to join you, highlighting your tender care for his or her well-being.
Many of us had our mothers bugging us for years to stand up straight. While the nagging may have been annoying, they probably had a point. Having good posture not only makes you look better and improves confidence, but it helps with breathing and circulation, decreases muscle spasms, and even helps your mood.
“When someone is confident and in a winning mood, they bring their shoulders back, their head over their shoulders and their arms raised up,” says Marvin C. Lee, a chiropractor in Los Angeles. “Good posture can promote these feelings.”
With so many people sitting at their desks for the majority of the day, bad posture has become commonplace. Having bad posture can negatively affect your body, including your back, jaw, hips, and knees. This can cause a lot of pain, along with long-term damage.
“We as humans were never meant to evolve into such sedentary creatures,” says Lee. “The prolonged sitting, hunched over our phones and computers, contributes a lot to our poor postures.”
It is not too late. Just because you have bad posture now doesn’t mean you can’t fix the way you stand. Strengthening the proper muscles and focusing on how you sit and stand can help you attain proper alignment. If you find yourself constantly slumped over, consider trying some of the following tips for better posture.
1. GET UP AND MOVE
“Get up at least once an hour to go to the bathroom, bust out a quick set of stretches, or get yourself a glass of water,” says Lee. Staying hunched over at your desk can cause bad posture, so any chance you have to move around, take it.
2. SWITCH TO A STANDING DESK
While this may not be possible for everyone, getting a standing desk allows you to stay upright while you’re working and avoid the slouched-over position that’s so detrimental to our alignment.
3. TRAIN YOUR MUSCLES
By taking up a regular exercise regimen, you can train your body to not only be stronger, but to hold itself up properly. “Be diligent about proper posture while working out so you can train the proper muscles to hold that posture while you are at rest,” says Dr. Matt DeLeva, another chiropractor in Los Angeles.
4. DO A DESK STRETCH
There are many stretches you can do while seated at your desk that incorporate the shoulders, neck, back, and legs. Try a simple hamstring stretch or an easy twist to keep your muscles from tensing up in the same position all day.
5. TAKE UP YOGA
Many yoga poses incorporate back stretches, strengthen your core, and help with relaxation and flexibility. Yoga also helps bring more awareness to your body, which can help you pay attention to how you carry yourself.
6. CHANGE THE WAY YOU SIT
You can have the nicest and most ergonomic chair, but if you are sitting improperly in it, your posture will be affected. “Try lifting your chair or putting a pad under you so that your knees are lower than your hips,” says DeLeva. This will keep the correct curvature in your back and neck.
Though office spaces are becoming more collaborative, private areas are still required for phone calls, closed-door meetings, or focus work. Many companies are mixing up their space design—incorporating open desks and impromptu break areas, as well as small meeting spaces, phone booths, and conference rooms to support the various types of work that are required in a given day.
2. A Breakdown of Barriers
With more CEOs and senior managers moving out of private offices and into the open floor environment, the hierarchy of working relationships has shifted. This transparency encourages collaboration and community for everyone across the organizational chart. Sharing the floor also allows management to stay involved, know what’s going on and participate in a more meaningful way.
3. A Focus on Employee Health
We’ve all heard the news: sitting is the new smoking. In addition to the physical pain associated with slumping over computers all day, research has proven that sedentary lifestyles take a toll on health. Thus, more employers are encouraging employees to move throughout their day.
Popular desk alternatives include adjustable and standing height desks. Other than the health benefits gained by using this furniture, many companies suggest that greater creativity and a freer flow of ideas have been seen among employees who stand while working. Other chair substitutes including bosu balls and treadmill desks. In addition to furniture alternatives, companies are also promoting physical health through office design, including bicycle storage and spaces for quick workouts or stretching.
4. Collaborative Spaces
Breakout zones also encourage employees to collaborate outside the boundaries of meeting rooms. These playful gathering spaces that promote socialization lead to encounters among individuals from separate departments who may not usually interact.
5. The Workplace as a Home Away from Home
Many workspaces are becoming more casual, adopting a homey aesthetic. Rather than stiff chairs, formal desks and closed doors, today’s workplaces are incorporating breakout areas with cozy seating. These areas gives employees the opportunity to “create experiences that energize and inspire.” Employers therefore give employees options for a variety of comfortable yet productive environments to encourage longer work hours.
Approximately a decade ago, the first adjustable-height desks hit the market. These “sit/stand” alternatives to traditional office seating could be manually adjusted or, with the help of an electric motor and push of a button, shifted according to a worker’s needs and preferences. They were intriguing, but costly, as they were considered specialty items.
Over the past few years, and even as recently as the last few weeks, a number of studies have come out pointing to the health detriments of sitting too much, from back and neck pain to increased risk of organ damage and circulatory issues. Experts from the National Institute of Health, Mayo Clinic and more began speaking out about the benefits of motion. Companies, in turn, are starting to listen.
How do I know? This summer alone I’ve encountered several clients who have asked about incorporating adjustable-height desks and other seating alternatives into their office design. Our firm recently completed a project where 20 percent of the office’s desks were adjustable. In addition to clients proactively approaching us, we’re also bringing adjustable-height desks up as part of the programming and workplace strategy reviews and it’s an option they are increasingly selecting. And it’s not just social media and tech firms that are buying into the trend. While not as widespread, some financial services and creative firms are embracing these alternatives and weaving them into the furniture choices they make.
As these options become more commonplace and readily available from office furniture manufacturers, they also become more cost-effective and better. Like any other technology–think of the iPhone or flat screen televisions–now that they’ve been on the market for some time, the price has gone down and the products themselves have vastly improved, thanks in part to user feedback and testing.
Solutions, however, are not limited to adjustable-height desks. There is a plethora of mobile desks on the market, which can allow the wireless worker to roll his laptop and workspace from one meeting area to the next, a model known as activity-based working. VaynerMedia, on Park Avenue South, has successfully used this option for a portion its office furniture plan. Mobile desks, hoteling and benching all allow for greater flexibility, particularly for firms whose workers travel several months out of the year for their jobs (think accountants who spend four months of the year auditing internally at a company before returning to their desks). Mobile and sit/stand desks better utilize space and square footage–a huge benefit for companies.
Whether it’s incorporating ergonomic workstations, placing stairs between two floors to encourage workers to get up, move around and interact, or other wellness measures such as spacious pantries and outdoor meeting areas for employees to get daylight and fresh air, it’s clear that healthy, flexible workplaces have made their way into the mainstream.
Originally published on the Commercial Observer, July 14, 2014.