Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels.
And there’s a direct relationship between time spent sitting and your risk of early mortality of any cause.
Richard Andrews, Managing Director of Inspiration Office, an Africa-wide office space and furniture consultancy, said that most workers have gotten so used to the notion of sitting all day, they don’t even think about the damage it could be doing to their bodies.
“Our analysis shows that people sit in a car or bus to get to work and once there, sit at their desks, sit in meeting rooms and even sit in the canteen for lunch. And what compounds the problem these days, is the culture of answering emails after work hours.
“This can easily addd an extra hour of sitting to the day. This means workers will typically sit for between 10 and 12 hours a day without even realising it. And it can have a devastating impact on peoples’ health – even if they exercise frequently.”
One study compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of a with those who logged more than four hours a day of screen time.
Those with greater screen time had a nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause and about a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack.
Andrews added that if there was ever doubt of the effects of sitting, most people ‘shrink’ during the day. The reason lies in the vertebral column, specifically in the inner part of the vertebral disc. The discs in the spine are composed of a gelatin-like material which provides cushioning and protection to the spine.
“It’s your body’s shock absorber. And with the pounding your vertebrae take during the day with by sitting, it needs time to rest, rejuvenate and elongate again. Sitting for hours literally causes us to shrink a little during the work day.
“There is however a simple way to combat the negative effects of sitting on our health, “ Andrews noted.
“People in offices should take a movement break every 30 minutes. No matter how much you exercise, you still need to do this. Research shows that people who sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of early death.”
Andrews said that while people know they need to move more, guidelines on what the entails should be more specific and should be put up in every office and encouraged by management.
“For every 30 consecutive minutes of sitting, stand up and move/walk for five minutes at brisk pace to reduce the health risks from sitting.”
Study results indicate that those who frequently sat in stretches less than 30 minutes had a 55% lower risk of death compared to people who usually sat for more than 30 minutes at a stretch.
People who frequently sat for more than 90 minutes at a stretch had a nearly two-fold greater risk of death than those who almost always sat for less than 90 minutes at a stretch, he said.
Andrews added that an added benefit of moving every 30 minutes was to encourage older workers to move.
“As we age we tend naturally to become more sedentary, but this increases the risk of poor health. Everyone will benefit from moving every 30 minutes. It’s important people just make it a habit.”
Spending those long hours sitting in the same fixed posture at a desk is doing your body no good and may even be causing long term damage; but the growing adoption of height adjustable desks in South Africa may prove the antidote.
Richard Andrews, MD of Inspiration Office, says people weren’t designed to sit at a desk all day.
“But we’re seeing growing demand for sit stand desks from our clients in South Africa. Giving workers the choice of adjusting the height of a desk can make a big difference helping people to work more healthily and productively as well as relieving back and joint discomfort.”
Importance of movement and variation
“While a good quality office chair offers great comfort and support, it can only go so far. As a result it’s always a good idea to get up out of your chair regularly through the day,” noted Andrews.
In reality what often happens is we get involved with our work and end up sitting far too long until the aches and pains set in and force us to move.
The beauty of sit and stand working is it allows you to work in a wide variety of postures that can’t be achieved while sitting.
“It helps to make for a far more natural way of working. And by taking note of our body’s signals of fatigue and stress all that’s needed is a change of work position. This wide variation of movement keeps the body more active and healthy,” says Andrews.
Benefits to office workers
Variable height desk workers often report significant benefits when changing from straight sitting all day to this more flexible working method:
• It keeps them in better shape physically
• It helps to control weight as additional activity burns off excess calories
• An ability to focus and concentrate more effectively
• A greater level of energy
• Feeling more engaged in their work
• A much wider variety of positions, many of which can’t be achieved with a chair
• Less aches and pains through being more active
A recent study shows the long-term harm of prolonged sitting. The American Cancer Society undertook a study of 120 000 people with no prior history of serious illness.
It discovered mortality rates rose by 37% for women and 18% for men who worked more than 6 hours a day sitting, when compared to those sitting for less than 3 hours a day.
How to fight back against sitting
“There is a fundamental difference between the pressures on the body when sitting and standing,” says Andrews. “When standing, your body’s weight is spread through the hips, knees and ankles. Prolonged sitting inflicted undue pressure on the back’s discs. A standing position reduces pressure on your back and allows weight to be carried via the legs.”
A study carried out by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory at Cornell University found computer users noticed a marked decrease in musculoskeletal pain after only 4 to 6 weeks of working at a height adjustable desk.
Dr. Delgado, a Cape Town based Chiropractor, has advised that we also need to establish a healthy work pattern. As a rule of thumb, every 30 minutes of work should be spent as follows:
· 20 minutes sitting
· 8 minutes standing
· 2 minutes moving / stretching
Says Andrews: “Although this way of working is radically different to a conventional office desk, it’s clear there is little problem to adapting to it for new users. In fact as the work position is so easy to alter it makes it very simple to pace yourself and adapt to the new way of working at a rate that suits you. However people should always have the choice and work in the way that is most comfortable for them.”