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Is Sitting the New Cancer?

Nov 20, 2015 03:03PM ● By Med Magazine

By Jeff Roach


Much has been said and written lately about the dangers of sitting. Research on the negative effects of prolonged sitting has shown higher incidences of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and premature mortality. For many in today’s society, time spent watching television or using the computer at home is added to eight or more hours of a sedentary office job. 


The latest research, however, has shown that it is not sitting but the lack of movement that may be contributing to poor health outcomes. “Our study overturns current thinking on the health risks of sitting and indicates that the problem lies in the absence of movement rather than the time spent sitting itself,” Dr. Melvyn Hillsdon, of the University of Exeter, said in a press release. “Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing.” 


For this article, I will focus on solutions to combat the negative effects of sitting and lack of movement in the work environment.


As an ergonomics specialist, I have seen a trend of employees requesting an accommodation (with or without a physician recommendation) for a standing desk. This likely is in response to the research mentioned above and/or from feeling discomfort after hours of prolonged sitting at work. If the employer accommodates the request, the employee then begins standing at the fixed height workstation. Inevitably, these employees have discomfort from prolonged standing so they request anti-fatigue mats or tall stools with foot rings. This is not the ideal solution to the problem.   


Height adjustable workstations are recommended as an alternative to fixed height desks. That way employees can change positions whenever they want. With this solution there should be no need for mats or tall stools. Employees simply sit or stand for a predetermined time or change positions based on mild fatigue rather than pain. If done consistently, employees should have more energy and have less discomfort at the end of the day and the end of the week. If an employee plans to stand and walk more, he or she should ensure they are wearing high quality footwear with good arch support and consider gel insoles.   


To guard against the effects of a lack of movement, companies should encourage employees to walk occasionally throughout the work day. Employees should plan ahead to get up and walk during scheduled breaks, to get a drink or snack, and discuss work related matters with co-workers instead of emailing (when appropriate).


Some may be concerned about a reduction in productivity with this sit/stand/walk approach. However, people are able to better problem solve and increase their focus with frequent changes of position. I can think of many examples of walking away from a frustrating problem and returning to find the solution to be much more obvious. Employees that develop fatigue, pain, and lack of focus with static positions are not likely to be as productive.


Now to the topic of exercise balls and treadmill desks. I do not recommend sitting on exercise balls when working due to the lack of back support and the risk of injury from falling off the balls. I would rather have employees changing positions more frequently than having employers investing in treadmill desks.


In summary, prolonged sitting and lack of movement is detrimental to our health. The solution does not lie with static standing at fixed height work surfaces. The solution is to change positions more frequently and move throughout the day.


Jeff Roach is an occupational therapist and a member of the South Dakota Occupational Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association. He is an Ergonomics and Loss Control Specialist with RAS.