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The Effects Of Prolonged Sitting And What You Can Do About It
Monday, 6 July 2015 12:23:00 Europe/London
Here at Office Fitness we are passionate about transforming the effect that our working week has on our health. Across the world, most of us office-based workers spend a considerable amount of time sitting at our desks and - often without realising it - we pick up all sorts of niggles that generally detract from the quality of our health. Some of these complaints can be relatively minor - such as a stiff neck every now and again - while others can actually increase our chances of serious illness and even worse.
If this is your first time hearing of this, you may be a little skeptical as to whether working in an office can really be that bad for your health - it's not like you're a Parajumper with the US Coastguard now, is it? Well no, probably not. However, your environment can still hurt you.
Nothing I write about here is simply based on my own opinions - it's all based on peer-reviewed research. Although the findings go against a lot of what seems natural to us, I hope that by keeping an open mind you will be rewarded with a new way of looking at things and, ultimately, with a new way of reaching your health and fitness goals.
Okay, so you spend 9-5, Monday to Friday sitting at your desk and let's be honest - it's not that enjoyable. Some people refer to the working week as a slog and there's probably a good reason for this - it's severely detrimental to your health and it genuinely is a stressful activity to be involved in.
Before we start looking into the actual effects of prolonged occupational sitting, I thought it would be useful to try and give you an idea of just how much sitting we all do throughout our careers. This may surprise you, especially if you're thinking right now that you don't actually spend that much time sitting.
How Much Time Do We Actually Spend Sitting?
To try and put a figure on this, let's have a quick look at some statistics around the average sedentary time of office, customer service and call center workers. This data is from an Australian based study, although the general trend is probably applicable to workers across the globe. The study shows the average amount of time spent sitting per hour, both on work days and on non-work days.
As you can see, when it comes to the hours spent in work (9am-5pm for sake of ease) the average person is seated for 40 minutes or more per hour, or 66% of the time. To put this into even more frightening terms, in other reports it has been suggested that office based workers spend an incredible 80,000 hours seated over their careers (Reducing Prolonged Sitting In The Workplace, University of Queensland 2012). Although this may seem perfectly normal - who doesn't like a rest after all - it's actually against what our bodies want and are designed to do.
Now let's look at some of the effects that this seemingly innocent activity has.
So What Are The Effects Of This Prolonged Sitting?
The effects of prolonged sitting vary from minor grievances to very serious health concerns.
Stiff/Sore Back - (Source)
Okay, so this one is almost too obvious to point out although I want to be thorough. What might not be so obvious is that even sitting down at your desk for two hours can increase your chances of developing lower back problems.
In one study, participants were asked to work at a desk for 2 hours and then had their lower back 'stiffness' tested through lumbar flexion exercises. The results showed that even within this short period of time, male participants backs had indeed stiffened. The results for female participants varied slightly, with most negative effects being noticed after 2-4 hours.
Further, a whole range of musculoskeletal problems are associated with prolonged sitting, including Kyphosis (outward curving of the spine) and Lordosis (inward curving of the spine).
Higher Risk of Diabetes - (Source)
This image shows the effect that an increase in either walking or sitting has on your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. The image pools information from various studies to show that, essentially, the more you are sitting down the higher the chances of developing this disease. Conversely, if you increase the amount of time spent walking, you reduce your chances considerably.
Although this particular study talks about sitting and watching TV, we can apply the same results to sitting at our desks and working at our PC's:
Higher Risk of Cancer -(Source)
A study conducted in the Netherlands showed that higher occupational expenditure levels and reduced occupational sitting times were likely factors in reducing the chances of distal colon cancer. Conversely, this means that the less time you spend sitting, the less chance you have of developing this disease.
Increased Chance Of Early Death (Source)
According to a study published on the BMJ Open website, there may be a link between prolonged sitting and early death. Using data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the report estimated that reducing the time spent sitting and watching TV by 2 hours a day would increase life-span by 2 years for the average American.
The Effect On Obesity/Weight Control
When it comes to burning calories, you may be surprised to know that sitting down doesn't burn that many more calories than you burn while asleep. Average values are as follows:
Sleeping: 57 calories burned per hour
Sitting: 60 calories burned per hour
Standing: 100+ calories burned per hour
Therefore, even from a weight control perspective, the benefits of standing over sitting are substantial. Also, according to Peter T. Katzmarzyk, Ph.D, our metabolism slows severely when we are sitting. This means that our bodies have trouble processing fat and that our insulin levels spike.
What Can We Do To Keep Ourselves Healthy While At Work?
So, now that we know that most of us spend too much time sitting and that this prolonged sitting is very bad for our health, what can we do about it?
The first thing we can do is to make it easy for ourselves to stand for periods while we are at work . The Take a Stand Project (2011) showed that simply by providing office equipment designed to facilitate standing, workers stood for much longer periods of the day, thereby reducing the chances of the ill-effects described above. Specifically, this study showed improvements in reduced sitting time by 224% (or 66 minutes a day) and a 54% reduction in back pain.
However, the study also found that if the standing regimen was allowed to lapse for 2 weeks, all of the benefits would be undone.
Oops - Won't Reducing Sitting Time Also Reduce Productivity?
The short answer is no. In a 2012 report by the University of Queensland into sitting in the workplace (Reducing Prolonged Sitting In The Workplace), it was found that of three studies that measured productivity, two of them showed improvements. This suggest that in addition to the health benefits associated with reducing sitting time in the workplace, you can also make improvements professionally.
The second thing we can do is to incorporate our fitness regime into our working day. I'll be writing a separate blog post on this - please check back for updates.
So, What's The Takeaway?
Taking the above evidence as a whole, we can say with confidence that the less time you spend sitting down in general, the better it is for your health and productivity. Therefore, given that we spend so much time at work, it's a very good idea to try and figure out a way to reduce the time we spend sitting at our desks.
You don't even really need specialised office fitness equipment for this - you could add height to your PC or laptop with boxes for example, which would allow you to stand while you work.
Thanks for reading and please let us know your thoughts in the comments!