Despite the fact that most people work in offices, the changes that have occurred in the work environment have taken place almost imperceptibly and unnoticed. The most obvious is the shift from small rooms with a few desks to large open-plan designs. Another is the tendency of new office blocks to have all-glass walls, thereby reducing privacy and creating a sense of continuity between work and the wider outdoor environment. A third is the amount of time that people spend sitting in front of their monitor day in day out. According to international research, most people spend five hours each day sitting at a desk and seven hours sleeping. Offices now have lifts, documents are sent by email to the next desk rather than being delivered personally by hand and conference calls frequently replace having to walk to a different building for a meeting.
These changes may increase productivity if the motto is “more time to work, more work on time”, but at the cost to one’s health.
Professor Stuart Biddle from the University of Loughborough, a researcher in this area spelled out his advice after research showed that lounging in a chair for too long can double the risk of diabetes, heart disease and even death. His study, published in 2012 Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, analysed research data on people with different levels of sedentary behaviour. Compared with the least sedentary, those who spent the most time sitting down had a 112pc greater risk of diabetes while the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks or strokes was increased by 147pc in the most sedentary, and death linked to heart disease by 90pc.
A recent report from Germany found that the ideal amount of time spent standing and undertaking physical activity for our health in a standard eight-hour work day is a progression from two to four hours.
A new study in BMC Research Notes was conducted in Germany in the form of an office worker survey. Some 2,830 adults over the age of 18 responded to the questionnaire with a 53pc male and 47pc female split.
The lead author is Dr Birgit Wallmann-Sperlich of the Institute for Sports Science, Julius-Maximilians University Wurzburg. The study found that desk-based workers reported sitting 73pc of their working day, standing 10.2pc, walking 12.9pc and doing physically demanding tasks 3.9pc.
This was based on careful and repeated diary-keeping of their work-related activities. Yet they expressed a desire to sit for much less at 53.8pc and with remainder of the time comprising standing, walking or engaging in other physical activities. The longer the working day, the less time those surveyed wanted to spend sitting and the greater their desire to stand.
Whether this wish was due to knowledge of the dangers of being sedentary or whether it was a psychological need for more activity was not examined. But as multiple studies have shown, activity has mental as well as physical health benefits. Whatever the explanation, there is a disconnection between the amount of time office workers actually spend sitting and the much shorter amount they consider to be desirable.
If these wishes were to be implemented they could potentially make a difference to the wellbeing and overall health of sedentary employees but intervention studies have been unsuccessful in achieving this desired level of sitting.
Using sit-stand workstations has been the most common approach to this issue. Findings from studies pooled together in a single analysis (meta-analysis) suggest that activity-permissive workstations can be effective in reducing occupational sedentary time, without compromising work performance although the reduction only amounted to 77 minutes. No effect on health benefit was observed, nor could it be with such a small reduction. The possibility that specific groups might benefit comes from a University of Iowa study which found that among obese office employees, the use of such workstations for 55 minutes each day did improve health and work productivity outcomes.
So the message for those who want to spend more time standing rather than sitting is to consider options like going for a walk during lunch time, using the stairs rather than the lift and having the temerity to ask for a sit-stand desk.
It’s your health that is at stake. Brahms reportedly composed while standing and maybe one of his Hungarian dances, to boost your proclivity to dance, might act as a good stimulus as you knock on your boss’s door.
Article Written by Dr. Patricia Casey and Featured in The Irish Independent.
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