An expert consensus statement, commissioned by Public Health England and the Active Working Community, recently triggered a media debate over the benefits of standing over sitting at work
The authors were asked to provide guidelines for employers on how best to help workers avoid long periods of sedentary work.
The evidence for reducing time spent sitting dates back to the 60s when comparisons were made between the health of highly sedentary bus drivers and their more active colleagues, the bus conductors. The bus conductors were found to have lower rates of morbidity and premature mortality.
Today, researchers are objectively measuring biomedical markers relating to diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. By linking functional activity and activity levels to health and disease, they are making the case for changes for us all to consider implementing at work. This is already taking effect elsewhere in Europe – in Denmark and Sweden, for example, 90 per cent of workers are reported to use sit-stand workstations. In the UK, just one per cent do so.
Some companies are going beyond investing in ergonomic display screen equipment, by looking at workplace design and management practices that enable staff to work in a variety of settings, encouraging more activity and less sedentary positioning.
There are financial implications facing companies considering innovations such as sit-stand desks for all and in the UK these are still largely provided in response to a health condition. But as the evidence emerges, it’s possible that companies will focus on how savings may be made in the longer-term by cutting sickness absence.
The recommendations are more balanced than some of the headlines suggest, advising employees to build up to standing for between two to four hours during the working day, and that this time includes ’light walking’. They say that it’s also important to break up periods of sitting, and they note that people may initially experience musculoskeletal discomfort and fatigue. Physios know that posture in standing, as well sitting, can often be improved, as can gait patterns. We are well-placed to advise workers about this as part of making every contact count. So it’s not new, but the news is that a fresh approach is being considered at government level and so may lead to new practices in UK workplaces. In the meantime, we now know that we need to break up sitting time with activity – a quick burst of exercise at the gym or the walk home from the station isn’t enough. Emma Wilnot from the University of Leicester says: ‘If you exercise for 30 minutes a day, take time to reflect on your activity levels for the remaining 23 and a half hours.’
Think of introducing simple steps that perhaps pre-date the age of emails and lunch ‘al-desko’ but are very modern. Why not walk to talk to a colleague, or arrange to stand at or hold walking meetings?
- Jenny Nissler is a CSP professional adviser