It’s been called the new cancer and it’s killing us. Sitting hunched forward looking at a screen all day causes a laundry list of health issues, from heart and brain damage to back, hip and neck problems.
Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, says that such is the growing awareness of the dangers of sitting, that in addition to ensuring correct ergonomics for desks and chairs, she increasingly works with movement specialists like Monja Boonzaier, who helps employees preserve their health in the office.
Boonzaier (who teaches locally the internationally accepted Feldenkrais Method of body awareness and movement) says that although many people understand how bad all day sitting is, much of the advice on how to combat it “is impractical and wrong.”
“For example, people are advised to sit leaning back. But how can you sit back in chair and work on a computer? A lot of advice is also centred around having a strong core because you need those muscles to hold you upright.
“It’s a good theory but people know from their own experience a strong stomach does not make you sit upright. If you watch someone who has been told to sit or stand straight they cannot maintain this ‘correct’ position without a continuous effort. As soon as their attention shifts to an activity that is interesting they will slump back to their original posture.”
Boonzaier says that dynamic sitting is a powerful solution and is increasingly taught the world over as a way to combat the ill effects of sitting all day.
“We recommend arm and wrist stretches, doing side bends to the left and the right to stretch lower back pains, and also doing glute stretches like lunges or swinging each leg forward and back while standing. You should also regularly roll your feet, rock your pelvis back and forth, shift your weight to the left and right sides of your seat, and press each ear to its nearest shoulder. “
Boonzaier says this only take a few minutes and suggests doing a few of them every hour as it will dramatically reduce joint stiffness and back pain. “Ideally people should also get up from their desks and walk around the office or up and down the stairs every hour too.”
Trim, however, warns that stretching at work doesn’t mean you can skip exercise. “The three best exercises to combat sitting for long spells are squats, lunges and wall sits. The best thing about these exercises that you can do them anywhere, you don’t need a gym.”
Trim adds that ergonomically friendly desks and chairs was also fundamental to good office health. “Amongst other things, this means having an adjustable chair that supports your spine and allows you to sit with feet flat on the floor and thighs parallel to the floor. Desks should have clearance for your knees. Computer monitors should be placed directly in front of you, about an arm’s length away. The top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level. The monitor should be directly behind your keyboard.”
There is another often overlooked aspect to sitting all day – we forget to breathe.
“Bad posture and stress at work often makes us forget to breathe properly. Every hour, take a few moments to take three or four really deep breaths. Breathe in deeply and then out slowly and press the breath out of your lungs. This can be done while stretching.”
Recently it was widely reported in the media that all employees at Apple’s new spaceship-style headquarters in Cupertino, California would be getting desks that give them the option of working sitting or standing – a trend that is rapidly catching on in South African offices too.
Richard Andrews, MD of Inspiration Office, says that rapidly increasing numbers of their clients are asking for new desk installations that can accommodate workers who prefer to mix up the work day by standing and sitting.
“In the past year we have had a nearly 50% rise in demand for desks that give office workers the choice of sitting or standing,” says Andrews.
He adds that the financial services and insurance industries in South Africa in particular have jumped on the trend, with some firms replacing the workstations for every staff member.
“The return in efficiency in having staff that are able to adjust their posture at the push of a button, has more than outweighed the capital expenditure. In our experience height adjustable workstations are a simple way to provide for the well-being of an organisation’s most valuable asset – its people.”
Sitting all day is seen by health professionals the world over as the new smoking. Sitting is killing people slowly by taking a huge physical and mental toll on the mind and body. Often workers sit for eight to ten hours a day which is a dangerous habit.
Research shows that sitting for long periods of time contributes to risk of metabolic syndrome, musculoskeletal disorders, heart attack and stroke risk and overall death risk, among others. Those who sit a great deal also have lower life expectancies and slower metabolism.
Dr. Hidde van der Ploeg, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health in Australia, found that sitting for 11 or more hours per day increased risk of death by 40%, regardless of other activity levels.
“People mistakenly think they can shrug off the effects of a long day by hitting the gym after work but you can’t,” Andrews warns.
So how can office workers protect themselves?
1) Ask for a standing desk and set it to the right height. “There really is no need to stand all day. Ideally though, at least every other hour, workers should work standing for an hour,” Andrews advises.
2) Office laps. Talking a walk around the office or even outside if time permits helps combat the strains of sitting. Try and walk at least every hour.
3) Active meetings. “Most meetings are too long anyway. Taking a loop around the block while talking to colleagues will get the circulation going and shorten the meeting.”
4) Desk exercises. Stretching your arms and legs at your desk are a simple way to keep moving even while you’re seating. Arms reaching for the sky and extending legs forwards help improve circulation.
5) Set reminders. Increasingly smart watches can detect if the wearer has been sitting too long and sends an alert to the user to get up and move around. “Alternately a colleague buddy system of reminders is a good way to remind yourself to get up move every hour,” says Andrews.
He adds the typical sit/stand desk look exactly the same as normal desks but come fitted with a lever or button on the side. All workers need to do is simply flip the lever and adjust the desk to a comfortable standing height and the reverse to set it back to sitting desk level.
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.”