Guy tagging into the building.

Are you sitting comfortably?

22 January 2014

Do you work in one of the most hazardous workplace environments of the 21st century?

Churchill portrait NYP 45063 

If, like so many other hard-working professionals today, you spend over four hours per day sitting on an office chair, then beware. Knowledge workers who spend too large a portion of their day sitting down are victims of an occupational hazard created by technology. Such a working pattern places you well within the 'sitting disease' danger zone and your well-being, your happiness, and your overall life-expectancy may be at risk.

Following a month of turkey, mulled wine and overindulgence in rich puddings and chocolate, many worthy employees jump into January feet first and vow to keep themselves healthy and lose weight in the year ahead. Whilst many companies incorporate 'wellness' packages and incentives to encourage employees to exercise outside working hours, it is the very nature of the environment at work that puts their health at risk. Moreover, studies have consistently revealed that having a regular work-out regime does not serve as an antidote to protect against the dangers of sitting disease.

Dr Emma Wilmot of the University of Leicester conducted a meta-analysis of 18 epidemiological studies covering almost 800,000 people in 2012. The results revealed that UK adults spend on average 50% to 70% of their time sitting, making them twice as likely as their non-sedentary counterparts to develop diabetes or die from a heart attack, and 2.5 times as likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease. Crucially, this was independent of the amount of vigorous, gym-style exercises that volunteers did.

The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, conducted by Dr Dunstan, a professor at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, found that every single hour of sitting after the age of 25 reduced life expectancy by 21.8 minutes. By comparison, smoking a single cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes. Therefore, an average of six hours per day sitting over a lifetime reduces life expectancy by 4.8 years. Again, this held true even for those who exercised regularly.

The problem is that sitting is an unnatural posture for humans. Our species was designed to stand up and keep moving. Dr Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who specialises in the study of energy expenditure, explains that "our DNA has absolutely not changed… Our environment has". In this day and age, the average car-driving, television watching, cubicle working adult would have to walk an extra 19km per day to match the physical activity levels of our ancestral hunter-gatherers.

Prolonged sitting slows the body's metabolism of glucose and lowers the levels of good cholesterol in the blood. After only one hour of sitting, the production of enzymes that burn fat in the body declines by up to 90%. Muscle contractions cease, particularly in large muscle groups of the lower limbs. Those muscles then require less fuel and so the surplus (in the form of blood sugar) accumulates in the bloodstream.

For those who took a 'stand' against a working day on their derrière in the study – breaking up prolonged periods of sitting with two minutes of walking every 20 minutes – blood glucose levels were shown to have reduced by 30%. Dr John Buckley, advisor to England's chief medical officer, claims that three hours' extra standing per day can burn off 8lb (3.6kg) of fat each year.

It is not just employees that stand to gain from changing their seating arrangements at work. In 2013, the UK lost 7.6 million working days as a result of musculoskeletal disorders. With improved posture (the recommended height of a desk is that which enables your arms to be bent at a 90 degree angle when standing), back and neck pain can be reduced by up to 50%, and 40% reduction in fatigue can be achieved after using a standing desk for as little as four weeks. Studies in office ergonomics show productivity increases by 12-18% where employees are provided with well-designed ergonomic furniture. The business case for change is strong.

Standing also makes a significant impact upon psychological well-being. The 'stand-up employee' experiences increased focus levels at work, feeling a greater sense of urgency when standing on the completion of tasks. Standing eliminates the urge to browse websites, check emails and engage with other workstation distractions. It also maintains consistency in energy levels, alleviating the tendency to fall into a mid-afternoon snooze.

Despite a standing desk being Silicon Valley's latest status symbol, this is not a new phenomenon. Advocates of stand-up working are evident throughout history, including: Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Donald Rumsfeld, Leonardo da Vinci, Phil Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, in a letter dated 1850, wrote that "Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up". According to Steve Connor, a reporter for the Independent newspaper, Hemingway reportedly "preferred to write while standing in a pair of oversized loafers on the hide of a lesser kuku – a type of forest antelope". You may face difficulty when trying to convince your line manager to allow you to work in quite so eccentric a manner, but the following 'success stories' may bolster the cause of an aspiring stand-up worker: Google offers standing desks as part of its wellness programme; Facebook has more than 250 employees using standing desks; FF Venture Capital outfitted its meeting rooms with standing desks; and Apple, Boeing, Allstate Insurance and Intel all promote ergonomic diversity in the workplace.

Dr Toni Yancey at UCLA uses a combination of a workplace 'tread-desk' and a recumbent bike to do her work – an exercise bike with an incorporated laptop shelf. A number of companies are now developing ingenious methods of adapting existing desks with hydraulic pumps and electronic motors to update their working facilities. The simplest method is to stand your existing desk on a raised platform, or place one on your desk upon which your monitor, keyboard and mouse can sit.

If you don't want to risk being the only stand-up worker in the pod, other stand-up initiatives are available: using bins, photocopiers and supply cupboards that are further away; using stairs instead of lifts; standing during coffee breaks and telephone calls; avoiding internal emails or phone calls; using pedometers under desks; and setting calendar reminders every 20 minutes to stand up or move for two minutes. Having standing meetings was also found to be highly effective – reducing the average meeting time to only 10 minutes. Standing during the daily commute is (unfortunately) not usually a choice for the average Briton, but you could also consider getting off the tube or bus a stop earlier.

A future stand-up workplace will require a cultural shift. Experts caution not to expect all employees to get on board straight away or at all – the aim is to offer employees the choice and highlight how everybody can incorporate small measures into the daily work pattern that will improve their long-term health. By way of a final warning, don't give up on your resolutions to participate in those gym sessions – the fitness enhancing benefits of more strenuous exercise cannot be replaced by simply standing up at work unfortunately. You still need to justify that gym membership…

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