Your job doesn’t involve potentially dangerous machines or toxic chemicals. In fact, you sit in a comfortable chair at your desk most of your work day. So you probably assume there’s nothing dangerous about your work environment.
Unfortunately, that assumption may be wrong.
Researchers are warning that the typical office workplace can be hazardous to your health – simply because of all that sitting behind your desk.
Maybe you’ve always thought a person had to be a couch potato who watches too much TV at night to qualify as sedentary. However, it turns out that simply sitting all day while you work fits the definition of a sedentary lifestyle, too. Working out a few times a week doesn’t override the health dangers of a not-moving-around- most-of-the-day lifestyle.
Why Sitting too Much is a Health Risk
“Sitting is now literally the most common human behavior – more common than sleeping,” says Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., an inactivity researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
As Dr. Hamilton explained at a recent inactivity physiology seminar at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, what he calls “over sitting” most of the day can be as much of a health problem as frequent overeating. That’s because physical inactivity hour after hour (even if you work out regularly) produces potent cellular and metabolic responses in the body.
The result? People who sit a lot, including those sitting at desks in front of computers during the work week, could have an elevated risk for health problems ranging from heart disease and diabetes to obesity.
It doesn’t take long for too much sitting to have an impact, either. A case in point: Dr. Rikke Krogh-Madsen of the Center of Inflammation and Metabolism in Copenhagen tested the effects of a sedentary lifestyle by studying non-smoking, healthy men in their twenties. About half of them usually walked 6,000 steps per day and the other half averaged around 10,000 steps daily.
All the men agreed to reduce their walking by sitting more often. In just two weeks, both groups of men experienced a worrisome increase in heart disease risk factors, including fat deposits in their abdomens and a whopping 60% rise in the amount of insulin circulating in their blood (a change linked to diabetes).
In other research, University of South Carolina public health researcher Steven Blair found that men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary activity, i.e. mostly sitting, had a 64% greater risk of dying from heart disease than more active guys.
Could Working at Your Desk Make you Fat?
A study recently conducted at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journal found that less physical activity in the workplace over the past five decades has contributed to the obesity epidemic in the U.S.
The researchers looked at trends in occupational physical activities over the past fifty years. Then they compared these trends to changes in body weight in American men and women. The results revealed that back in the 1960s, more than half of jobs included moderate physical activity. However, most of today’s jobs involve far more sitting and require less than 20% of physical activity.
Bottom line: people burn up fewer calories at work in the 21 st century than they did in the past. And that has most likely contributed to an increase in weight for working men and women. “Our data provides further support to the importance of including both diet and physical activity in discussions related to be both the causes and potential solutions of the on-going obesity epidemic,” lead study Pennington Biomedical scientist Timothy Church, M.D., Ph.D., concluded.
How to Add Movement to Your Work Day
So if you get up and exercise before work or on your lunch hour, isn’t that enough? Unfortunately, although regular exercise is an important step toward good health, the experts say it may not be enough.
“Exercise is not a perfect antidote for sitting,” Dr. Hamilton explains.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have an office job if you want optimal health. The good news is that inactivity from sitting too many hours can be countered. What you need to aim for is increased physical activity throughout the day.
The key? Get into the habit of working more movement into your daily routine. Even seemingly minor strategies can help.
Ways to Get Moving at Work
The America on the Move Foundation, a non-profit organization which promotes active living offers these tips for adding extra steps and physical movement to your workday:
- Take frequent breaks from uninterrupted sitting. Simply getting up and moving around every 15 minutes was valuable to health. Don’t sit when it isn’t necessary. Stand up and walk a few steps as you talk on the phone.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible.
- Encourage your co-workers to join you on walks during breaks.
- Add more steps to your day by heading for the restroom on the other side of the building.
- Encourage mobile meetings. Is there a reason why meetings always have to be held around a conference table? Talk to your colleagues about gathering your notes and heading outside to walk and talk in good weather.
Don’t be surprised if in the not-so-distant future more work environments are designed to help workers avoid too much sitting. For example, some offices already incorporate standing desks and even treadmills.