Guest blog: Standing up to sedentary working

By Greg Biddle, University of Leicester

On average, office workers now spend 75% of their day sitting at their desks. But what measures can employers, employees or workplace champions put in place to reduce this unhealthy behaviour? Researchers at the University of Leicester and Loughborough University have worked together to produce a FREE, evidence-based, online resource to help office workers sit less and move more throughout the day.

The modern world and the constant pursuit of technological growth have almost eliminated the need for movement in our daily lives. While commuting we sit in our cars or on the bus; at work we sit at our computers or in meetings; during our leisure time we sit watching TV, playing computer games or socialising with friends.

Because of technology advancements we do not even need to leave the comfort of our own homes to socialise, stay in touch with friends and family, to shop, to work or even be entertained on a screen. This means that, on average, Brits spend around 9.5 hours a day sitting.

Many of us are guilty of spending time sitting for extended periods due to work, travel or various social commitments. But with the growing evidence demonstrating the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, we may need to rethink the way we spend our time – and organisations can play a part in this.

Chronic health conditions

High levels of sitting have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing chronic health conditions or even premature death. Research has demonstrated that you could be twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes and be at an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases if you sit for long periods.

As sitting appears to be the default position for many of us, the thought that it could be so damaging seems absurd. However, when we sit down electrical activity in our major muscles groups (for example our quadriceps and gluts) shuts down, slowing the body’s capacity for calorie burning.

The level of enzymes that break down fats significantly drop, as does our high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol). Prolonged sitting also decreases the effectiveness of insulin, meaning blood glucose levels remain higher. So, not only does our metabolism slow down, but our blood glucose levels and blood pressure both increase, leaving us with increased risk of chronic diseases.

While regular physical activity should always be recommended as a part of a healthy lifestyle, meeting the government guidelines of 150 minutes a moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a week will not eliminate all of the health risks from sitting too much.

A recent review Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis indicated that, if at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day was achieved, you could alleviate (but may not completely offset) the health risks of a highly sedentary lifestyle. This is twice the recommended government guidelines for physical activity so could be an unrealistic target for most people.

So, in a world that facilitates sitting in just about every element of daily life, what can be done to reduce the risk of health complications associated with spending a high proportion of our day sitting? Increasing the levels of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day will certainly help reduce the risk of chronic illness and will also see a wealth of other benefits including weight loss, improved mood, self-esteem, sleep quality and reduced stress. However, we need to focus on reducing and regular breaking up our sitting throughout the day as well as doing bouts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

There is evidence to suggest that merely breaking up the long periods of sitting regularly throughout the day, by standing or lightly moving around for a few minutes each time, is associated with improved health outcomes; particularly blood sugars and blood pressure. Reducing sitting by around 1 hour per day has also led to a reduction in musculoskeletal issues, people feeling more energised, focused and less stressed.

The evidence around sedentary behaviour and health has been reviewed by a panel of experts to generate guidelines to reducing sedentary behaviour and urging employers to change their workplace culture and social norms around the sedentary environment. These guidelines recommend office workers spend at least two hours standing or moving, eventually increasing to four hours.

Avoiding too much sitting, especially for those who drive to an office-based job, is quite a challenge. But with productivity at risk, as well as health, it is vital they try and get up and away from their chairs as much as possible.

The SMArT Work programme

In a bid to promote wellbeing at work, office staff at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust took part in Stand More AT Work (SMArT Work), a 12-month research project aiming to reduce sitting time in office workers.

At the end of the 12-month trial, the intervention participants (those receiving SMArT Work) sat for 83 minutes less per day compared to the control participants. There were also improvements in standing time, job performance, work engagement, occupational fatigue, sickness presenteeism, daily anxiety and quality of life. The researchers also showed that the SMArT Work intervention was cost-saving for employers.

In order to allow other organisations across the world to benefit, the intervention has been made into a free online resource that can be easily implemented in organisations of any size or type. Simply follow the link to the website, www.smartworkandlife.co.uk, and sign-up to gain free access to all the resources.