Sitting at work: a health hazard
by Cathy Johnson
Spending hours of your day sitting might be shortening your life, even if you’re getting the recommended amounts of daily exercise.
Many of us spend large chunks of our day sitting, especially when we’re at work. If we’re not glued to a computer screen or tethered to a phone, then we’re stuck in seats around tables in meetings. And that’s on top of the hours we spend sitting in cars, buses or trains getting to and from work.
All this sitting seems to increase your risk of death from heart disease and other causes, research has found. And surprisingly, this happens even if you exercise regularly.
“If you do 30 to 60 minutes a day of exercise, you tick the box of being active,” says Melbourne exercise researcher, Dr David Dunstan. “But then you potentially have 15 or so hours a day when you’re not sleeping and not exercising that you could be spending predominantly sitting.”
There’s evidence the typical office worker is sedentary for 75 per cent of their working day. From research conducted over the past decade, it’s become clear this sitting affects our body’s processing of fats and sugars in ways that increase our risk of heart disease and diabetes.
And exercising every day won’t necessarily undo this damage. In fact, excessive sitting might undo the benefits of our daily exercise.
“When we’re idle, we’re not contracting muscles and muscle contraction is an important component of the body’s regulatory processes,” says Dunstan, from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute. In fact, one American expert, Professor Marc Hamilton, from Pennington Biomedical Research Center, has gone so far as to suggest sitting for most of the day may be as dangerous to health as smoking.
Lounge room to workplace
Earlier in the year, the issue had some publicity with the release of a study, by Dunstan and others. The researchers linked four or more hours a day of television watching with an 80 per cent increased risk of death from heart disease, and a 46 per cent increased risk of death from all causes. That’s compared to people who spent less than two hours a day in front of the box.
But it’s the fact we watch TV while sitting or lying still that’s the problem, rather than TV per se, Dunstan says. This clearly has implications for the highly sedentary workplace environment, something health authorities and employers in Australia are only just starting to come to terms with.
The key is to avoid sitting as much as possible or at least break up your sitting time – even if only by standing, which uses more muscles than sitting. (This is not mentioned in the current national exercise guidelines but Dunstan and others believe they need to change.)
In Scandinavia, height-adjustable desks, which allow you to shift from working in a sitting to standing position at the press of a button, are becoming common. But the demand in Australia so far is low, which affects prices and availability.
“Some are as cheap as $500 but most are around $1000 to $1500,” says Dunstan, who has a made his own homespun alternative – a wooden box which serves as a laptop pedestal for when he wants to work standing up at his desk.
“I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we can say exactly how long we can safely sit… The broadest recommendation we can make is just to avoid prolonged sitting; stand up and move about more often.”
What you can do
Even little activities like getting up to make a cup of tea can make a difference.
“We’ve actually reported that people who break up their sedentary time throughout the day, regardless of their total sedentary time, have a better health profile,” Dunstan says. “It all comes down to moving the muscles.”
For Dunstan that means not sitting on public transport, and standing or moving around as much as possible while taking phone calls and during meetings.
“I just say at the start of the meeting ‘I will get up and move around. Please don’t think I’m not listening.’ What happens is once one person starts to stand up, others start to too. But we don’t usually stand and move all the time because you know, you still need to write.”
Ultimately, he’d like to see changes in office design that encourage us to be less sedentary: centralised mail collection points, standing “hot desks” for internet browsing, lunch rooms with benches at standing height, and reading rooms with exercise bikes.
But you can try smaller measures – both at work and at home, such as:
- Standing when you use your phone (or use a cordless handset or headset so you can move around even more)
- Moving your rubbish bin/printer further away from your desk so you need to get off your chair to access them
- Taking the stairs instead of the lifts between floors
- Walking to a colleague to talk to them instead of sending an email
- Getting up to move around for few minutes or so every hour
- Doing household chores like ironing or folding the washing while watching TV
- Standing to watching children’s sporting activities.