The “sitting is the new smoking” mantra from health care is linking sedentary work-lifestyles to everything from poor metabolic health to an increased risk of heart disease.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults have at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week.
That’s difficult to do in today’s work environment where employees are desk-bound for eight to 12 hours a day. Add sitting in your car to and from work and then at home in front of the television … it all adds up to sedentary behavior.
Musculoskeletal pain, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease all have been linked to living a sedentary life. A growing concern in both American and European adults today is that 70-90 percent of the general population is classified as inactive.
Even if one considers himself to be an active person outside of work, it often is not enough activity to offset the sedentary time at work and reduce the risks of getting these diseases.
Musculoskeletal symptoms are common among sedentary office workers. Sitting in front of a computer for eight to 12 hours can cause low back pain and pain in the shoulder and neck muscles.
Studies have suggested that sedentary behavior also may have harmful effects that can lead to worsening brain health.
Conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have been linked to decreases in blood flow to the brain.
This is especially of concern for older members of the workforce. As our population ages, more baby boomers are still in the workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that 25 percent of the workforce this year is 55 and older.
Any modification to reverse this trend involves having management on board with allowing employees to be up and moving about the office.
Managers need to see it as a positive effort to improve the health of their workers and not a distraction from production.
Even with management’s support, some office workers may believe there is a barrier to changing their sedentary behavior at work because of the risk for low self-efficacy.
One’s sense of self-efficacy can play a major role in how one approaches goals, tasks and challenges.
As such, some workers believe they do not have the ability to change their sedentary behavior because of the pressure of getting their work tasks completed on time.
That prevents them from taking a break and frequently changing positions and causes them to lose track of time.
This endorses the findings of other studies in which participants cited perceived time pressures and interruptions to productivity as barriers to taking breaks from sitting.
BREAKS FOR EXERCISE
So, how do we get office workers up and moving during the workday?
The office environment can be modified to include stretching and walking breaks hourly as well as changing the workstation itself.
One option is to use smartphones and watches that trigger an alarm that we have been immobile for more than 60 minutes, and that we need to stand and walk for five minutes to improve our circulatory system.
Another option is the sit-to-stand workstation.
Several manufactures in the region produce just such an option. Innovative Office Products of Forks Township makes the Winston Workstation, which converts any desk into a healthy workspace.
Adding this incentive to stand while working will increase circulation and burn calories two times faster than when sitting, which helps in reducing obesity.
According to one study in 2011 by Minnesota researchers Nicolaas P. Pronk, Abigail S. Katz, Marcia Lowry and Jane Rodmyre Payfer: “The Take-A-Stand Project was able to show that improvement in health factors such as back health indicators and mood states are directly related to reductions in sitting time of workers engaged in sedentary job tasks. Overall, this project was successful in reducing sedentary behaviors of workers and suggests reduced sitting time improves worker health.”
Of course, there also are studies that show standing for prolonged periods of time can also lead to cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal pain.
The key here is moderation in both sitting and standing at work to improve overall health outcomes.
It also is important to remember to wear supportive shoes and be standing on a soft anti-fatigue mat. This will help to reduce back and joint pain.
Switching to a standing desk may not be a cure-all, but moving throughout the day, eating well and exercising regularly all are important for keeping a healthy brain and body.
Christine Lessinger is a family nurse practitioner who has worked in occupational medicine for the past six years and in manufacturing for 20 years. She practices at HealthWorks at Lehigh Valley Health Network – with four offices in the Lehigh Valley dedicated to occupational health – providing treatment and health care needs for a variety of workers and companies. She can be reached at 484-884-2249.