Guest blog by Paul Drew, DPG Plc
Sitting is the new smoking. These were the words of a man called Dr James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and author of the book ‘Get up!: Why your chair is killing you and what you can do about it’. He had quite a lot more to say on this subject too: “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”
Levine’s words may sound like scaremongering, but there’s a growing body of research that shows that sitting for long periods of time every day is bad for our health. It increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, metabolic syndrome, back and neck pain and that’s just for starters.
The link between sitting and ill health were first announced in the 1950s, when researchers discovered that London bus drivers were twice as likely to suffer heart attacks as their standing colleagues – bus conductors.
And most of us do spend a lot of time sitting – adults of working age in England spend on average 9.5 hours sitting every day, according to the British Heart Foundation’s ‘Physical Activity Statistics 2015’.
As a nation, we need to do more exercise – health guidelines advise that individuals spend at least 150 minutes a week engaged in some form of moderate exercise. But, it can be hard to squeeze enough exercise in when there is a lot of work to be done and people have added pressures outside of work as well.
What can individuals and what can HR do to counterbalance the effects of a sedentary, office-based, chair-based lifestyle? HR can start by making sure the right culture is in place, one that doesn’t expect employees to remain chained to their desks (and chairs) all day.
Experts say that people need to take frequent breaks from sitting. It doesn’t need to be much – just a few minutes away from your desk and chair every hour can make a big difference reportedly. Get up, do a few stretches, go make a cup of tea – anything other than remaining in a sedentary position for long periods of time.
Even fidgeting at your desk – stretching your arms above your head, moving around in your seat and shifting position can help minimise the issues associated with a sedentary working day, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
HR needs to encourage employees to get up and move about and to be less sedentary. This includes taking a lunch break and preferably not just one that replaces one chair for another. A lunch break is a great time for employees to stretch their legs and fit some exercise into their daily routine. That’s partly why so many employers either have onsite facilities such as a gym or have partnerships with external gyms and swimming pools whereby employees get membership at reduced rates.
However, some research claims that incorporating exercise and breaks from continuous sitting into the working day isn’t enough. Not matter how much exercise we do, it isn’t enough to counteract the problems associated with sitting for long periods of time, day in day out. We simply need to sit less. A study conducted by Dr David Alter, a heart expert at the University of Toronto and senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, unearthed these sobering statistics: heavy sitters have a 90% higher risk of developing diabetes than those who sit less, an 18% higher chance of dying from heart disease or cancer and 24% greater odds of dying from any cause. Those rates were the average for individuals who exercised regularly and those who didn’t.
Some companies are trying to beat the problem of sedentary lifestyles by introducing standing desks. Using a standing desk, rather than sitting at a desk, is thought to overcome some of the problems of sedentary working lives. It is also thought to result in fewer postural and eye strain problems. Forward-thinking companies such as Google and Microsoft have reportedly gone a step further – they have invested in treadmill desks, so that employees can work and walk at the same time.
It doesn’t always take that much to incorporate a bit more physical activity and a bit less continuous sitting into your working day, but you do need to remember to do it.
Some easy ways that you can overcome a sedentary lifestyle when at work:
– take frequent mini-breaks from your chair
– fidget every so often when you are sitting
– take a lunch break, preferably not just in the office canteen
– stand up when you are on the telephone
– go for walking meetings
– use the stairs at work
– use any onsite or local exercise facilities
– work sensible hours and do some exercise out of work