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Sedentary Workers: A Looming Health Problem?

Injuries and Illness
by ckilbourne

Sitting is the most common posture for many working Americans. Could all those hours in a chair be making them sick?

Sitting has been getting a bad rap lately, with some calling it the "new smoking" and others referring to the health risks of "chair disease."

For example, a study conducted at the University of Sydney, and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that adults who sit for 11 or more hours a day had a 40 percent higher chance of dying prematurely over the next 3 years compared with those who sat for fewer than 4 hours a day.

Dr. Amy Eyler, assistant professor of public health at Washington University in St. Louis agrees that too much sitting is a health risk. "The risks are there even if you took a 30-minute jog today," she says.

During prolonged sitting, the body basically becomes stagnant. "You don’t get a chance to reset the metabolism by moving around, so it remains at a baseline level," says Eyler. And although the number of calories burned while standing up is not huge, the benefits add up over time.

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Other Findings

  • Dr. James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic cites research linking sitting for long periods with obesity and metabolic syndrome (increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, elevated cholesterol, and excess mid-body fat). Too much sitting also appears to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
  • Dr. Toni Yancey of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity concludes, "We just aren’t really structured to be sitting for such long periods of time, and when we do that, our body just kind of goes into shutdown."
  • Professor Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina found that men who spend too much time sitting, even those who exercise regularly, are at higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Sitting, Standing, and the Workplace

The experts say that if an employee moved from sitting to standing for about 3 hours in a workday, he or she could burn an additional 150 calories a day. Even factoring in weekends and holidays, that’s more than 35,000 calories a year. Losing 1 pound requires burning about 3,500 calories.

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What would it take to make positive changes in the workplace?

Among other sit-less tips, Eyler recommends:

  • Incorporating standing breaks into the workday
  • Using software prompts that tell people to stand up every 30 or 60 minutes
  • Announcing occasional standing breaks and encouraging everyone to get up during meetings
  • Encouraging walking meetings when appropriate
  • Identifying employees who are interested and inviting them to develop strategies to help co-workers introduce more standing into their workday

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about new workstations that allow employees to sit or stand while they work—or even work and walk.


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