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WELLNESS

Sitting Is Bad for You: What Can You Do About It at Work?

Recent studies suggest sitting for long periods of time is worse than you might think. Here are tips to help sedentary employees stay healthy.

Deskercise: Get out of your seat. You just might improve your health--and increase your productivity.

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Is it possible that the traditional office worker has the most dangerous job in America?

Consider the following studies that found sitting for extended periods is hazardous to your health. In 2007, Dr. Rikke Krogh-Madsen, a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre of Inflammation and Metabolism in Copenhagen, decided to test the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. To do this, the doctor culled together a group of nonsmoking, healthy men in their twenties. Before the study began, Krogh-Madsen split the men into two groups: Those who walked on average 6,000 steps per day and those who averaged around 10,000. Then, over the next two weeks, she forced them all to reduce their walking routines—by sitting more often—to 2,000 steps per day.

The result? Both groups had a 60 percent increase in the amount of insulin circulating in their blood, as well as an increase in heart disease risk factors, including a seven percent average increase in abdominal fat. "It is amazing that only two weeks of reduced stepping can induce numerous metabolic abnormalities," Dr. Rikke Krogh-Madsen told U.S. News & World Report.

Steven Blair, a professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, came to a similar conclusion in another research study in May 2010. He found that "men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary activity had a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who reported less than 11 hours a week of sedentary activity," according to NPR.

Findings like these have several implications for businesses. Healthy employees make for more productive employees, for instance. One Australian study found that "the healthiest employees are nearly three times more productive while at work than the least healthy—140 effective working hours per month versus 45 effective hours worked per month." 

Healthy employees can also save you money. If your organization pays for (or subsidizes) healthcare, your business has a financial incentive to keep employees eating right and exercising.

Some even believe that sitting (or "excessive sitting") could be the basis for future Occupational and Safety and Health Administration complaints and even workplace litigation. "Sedentary jobs could become the next biggest wave of health lawsuits since the Occupational Overuse Syndrome and Repetitive Strain Injury lawsuits of the 1990s," wrote Emmanuel Turner, a lecturer in computer graphic design, on his blog.  "If this happens then work place computer usage will need to change to be less sedentary."

So what can you do to keep your office workers in shape and active? 

Encourage frequent breaks. Even if your employees already break for an hour to go for a walk or exercise at a gym, long, uninterrupted times spent sitting can still prove to be dangerous. One Australian study found that micro-breaks—that is, getting up and moving every 15 minutes—were perhaps more valuable than taking long breaks.

"We found that independent of total sedentary time, moderate-to-vigorous intensity time, and mean intensity of the breaks, more interruptions in sedentary time were beneficially associated with metabolic risk variables, particularly adiposity measures, triglycerides, and 2-h plasma glucose," the study said. "These findings suggest that it is not only the amount of sedentary time that is important, but also the manner in which it is accumulated."

Make your meetings mobile. Why meet around a conference table when you can go for a walk? When it's nice out, grab your tablets and head outdoors. "Walking meetings are a great way to energize your workday while providing essential exercise for yourself," notes the Center for Health Policy. "Walking meetings may be used for brainstorming, creative discussion, and problem solving."

Think treadmill or standing desk. It may sound silly (and look even sillier) but exercising at one's desk is an ideal way to keep active at the office. According to a report released in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, desk exercise is a proven weight-loss mechanism. "If sitting computer-time were replaced by walking-and-working, energy expenditure could increase by 100 kcal/h" the report concludes. "Thus, if obese individuals were to replace time spent sitting at the computer with walking computer time by two to three hours/day, and if other components of energy balance were constant, a weight loss of 20 kg to 30 kg/year could occur."

Start a wellness program. For a small business, creating a wellness program can seem like a daunting (and expensive) task. But with a wellness program, the American Journal of Health Promotion "showed an average 27 percent reduction in sick leave absenteeism, 26 percent reduction in health care costs, and 32 percent reduction in workers' compensation and disability management cost claims" while the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center estimates that an organization saves $350 annually when a low-risk employee remains low risk and $153 when a high-risk employee's health risks are reduced.

For more on starting a wellness program, click here.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: May 4, 2011




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