Health December 2013

Stand Up for a Healthy Workplace

Extended, unbroken periods of sitting can lead to an early grave

• Problems stem from slowing metabolism
• Worst in countries with market economies
• Exercise is not enough to avoid harm

My husband recently sent me an article from the Daily Mail. He was horrified that his efforts to hit the gym and eat a healthy diet might not be enough to prolong his life; sitting at work was also killing him.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows many hours spent sitting can indeed lead to premature mortality and contribute to a range of illnesses, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, mental illness and cancer.

A 12-year study of 16,500 adults recently published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise found that the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died.

The problems stem partly from a slowing metabolism during long periods of inactivity. When you are stuck in your chair you use less blood sugar and burn less fat, resulting in a higher risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Time spent sitting has also been shown to suppress a key enzyme called lipid phosphate phosphatase–1 (LPP1), which helps regulate blood clotting and the conversion of bad cholesterol into good.

Not only does sitting thicken the waistline, it can also lead to mental health issues.

A recent English study found that extended screen time was directly linked to an increase in depressive symptoms.

Physical activity promotes circulation and helps transport essential proteins and body chemicals, including feel-good beta-endorphins, to the brain. When our leg muscles and larger muscle groups are inactive, this essential circulation slows, and regulation of the brain chemistry is impaired.

Whether you are commuting, working or relaxing at home, sitting has become a big part of the modern lifestyle.

Excessive sitting is emerging as a serious global public health issue across the developed world. The World Health Organisation Global Burden of Disease project found the mortality and morbidity costs of physical inactivity were highest in countries with market economies.

Worse still, a recent Australian study found that the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise are not enough to counteract the harmful effects of sitting all day at work.

In Japan, where it is considered normal to work overtime, the threat looms larger. The financial impact of disease on the health system and to the Japanese economy through lost working days and reduced productivity is substantial.

In recent years, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has been focused on reducing the average length of a workweek to prevent issues arising from fatigue and illness.

The ministry has encouraged firms to apply new standards that would limit employees to less than 45 hours of overtime per month.

Chances are if you have read this far you are now looking for any excuse to get out of your chair. Don’t hesitate; a two-minute walk every 20 minutes is enough to improve your glucose metabolism. Here are some ideas to improve your health while at work.

  • Be an active leader: Promote good work habits and encourage co-workers to get out of their chairs. Schedule a regular lunchtime walk with your team.
  • Micro-breaks: Take more trips to the water fountain or printer, walk over to speak to a colleague rather than send an email, take phone calls standing up, or stand and stretch between tasks.
  • Walk and talk: Organise walking meetings. These may even be more productive than roundtable discussions, as the brain chemicals that stave off depression also help promote creative thinking and can aid mental acuity.
  • Modernise your workstation: Adjustable work surfaces that allow you to modify monitor and keyboard heights to alternate between sitting and standing are ideal.
  • Chair change: Alternating between a traditional chair and a stability ball or saddle chair encourages use of the larger trunk and leg muscles, and promotes circulation and core strength.
  • Get the app: A variety of smartphone applications are available relating to ergonomics. Information therein may include advice on proper desk setup or a regular alarm reminding users to take activity breaks after up to 30 minutes in one position.
  • Active workstation: Under-the-desk devices that allow you to move as you work are becoming more popular, including fixed pedals or stair steppers. For the seriously committed, a treadmill workstation is perhaps a more conspicuous option and presently the focus of studies in Oxford and the US.
  • Outside the office: Spend less time in front of the TV and choose active entertainment options, such as interactive video games that require movement to control the on-screen action. Popular systems include the X-box One with its recognition-sensor camera, PlayStation 4 or Nintendo’s Wii.