Medical research suggests constant sitting is harming our health

Medical research suggests constant sitting is harming our health

Medical research suggests constant sitting is harming our health

Standing while you are working is not a new idea – it is actually a practice with a long tradition. Winston Churchill wrote while working at a special standing desk, as did Ernest Hemingway, Benjamin Franklin, Oscar Hammerstein II and Donald Rumsfeld.

There have been a number of studies that have claimed major health benefits for standing for much of the day as opposed to sitting. It is said that we spend up to 12 hours a day sitting looking at computers or watching television. It is also said that those who sit all day live around two years less than those who are more active.

So why is sitting so damaging? One thing it does is change the way our bodies deal with sugar. When you eat, your body breaks down the food into glucose, which is then transported in the blood to other cells.

Simple experiment

In 2013 a simple experiment was carried out by Dr John Buckley and a team of researchers from the University of Chester. They asked 10 people who work at an estate agents office to stand for at least three hours a day for a week. They wanted to see what would happen if they took a group of people who normally spend their day sitting in an office and ask them to spend a few hours a day on their feet instead.

They had good reason to believe that standing would make a difference to their volunteers. This was the first time an experiment like this had been conducted in the UK. One woman with arthritis even found that standing actually improved her symptoms.

The Chester researchers took measurements on days when the volunteers stood, and when they sat around. When they looked at the data there were some striking differences. As hoped, blood glucose levels fell back to normal levels after a meal far more quickly on the days when the volunteers stood than when they sat.

There was also evidence, from the heart rate monitors that they were wearing, that by standing they were burning more calories.

Dr Buckley concluded that although going out and doing exercise offers many proven benefits, our bodies also need the constant, almost imperceptible increase in muscle activity that standing provides. Simple movement helps us to keep our all-important blood sugar under control.

We can’t all stand up at work but the researchers believe that even small adjustments, like standing while talking on the phone, going over to talk to a colleague rather than sending an email, or simply taking the stairs, will help.

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Can we make the office healthier by getting workers standing?

A BBC report says that when it comes to the average office, reducing sitting is a huge challenge. It means rethinking architecture, spending a lot of money, changing the office routine. Adjustable sit-stand desks can cost many hundreds of pounds.

Advocates say more standing would benefit not only health, but also workers’ energy and creativity. And some big organisations and companies are beginning to look seriously at change.

Ergonomics expert Alan Hedge is sceptical about how far workers can change. Some will simply want to stay sitting, he points out. And those with adjustable desks don’t mix well with the sitters.

But he thinks employees should still be encouraged to move around much more. “We need to think of sitting like driving,” he says. “Take a break regularly.”

The BBC report continues: The whole concept of sitting as the norm in workplaces is a recent innovation, points out Jeremy Myerson, professor of design at the Royal College of Art. “If you look at the late 19th Century,” he says, Victorian clerks could stand at their desks and “moved around a lot more”.

“It’s possible to look back at the industrial office of the past 100 years or so as some kind of weird aberration in a 1,000-year continuum of work where we’ve always moved around.”

What changed things in the 20th Century was “Taylorism” - time and motion studies applied to office work. “It’s much easier to supervise and control people when they’re sitting down,” says Myerson.

In the US and UK, “there’s a tendency to treat workplace design as a cost, not an investment”, he suggests. “Denmark has just made it mandatory for employers to offer their staff sit-stand desks.”

And while offering an option to stand seems a good idea, forcing everybody to give up their swivel chair would have consequences. “A lot of people felt having their own desk and chair was a symbol of job security and status,” says Myerson.

What might finally change things is if the evidence becomes overwhelming, the health costs rise, and stopping employees from sitting too much becomes part of an employer’s legal duty of care.

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Conclusion: The standing desk may not be the best option – like a healthy diet – moderation is often the answer. So a combination of sitting and standing – providing workers with a choice both in the office and the meeting room has to be the better option.

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