Combatting sedentary workplaces involves active corporate cultures

Even active individuals can face heightened health risks from sedentary jobs

Those well-intentioned gym memberships, corporate fitness challenges and healthy living posters might all be falling a bit short when it comes to employee health.

That’s because physical activity, even if it meets the recommended guidelines of 30 minutes per day, may not be enough to cut down health risks if employees spend all day, every day, sitting behind a desk.

"There’s a difference between sedentary behaviour and
physical activity. We’re encouraged to be active for 30 minutes a day, go to the gym, take a brisk walk — that’s separate from sedentary behaviour," said Robert Nuttall, assistant director at the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto.

"We have seen research that even if a person is active 30 minutes a day, if they spend the rest of their day sitting, they’re still going to be at an increased risk."

There’s the question of physical activity, and then there’s the question of sedentary behaviour. And most people see them as being opposite sides of the same coin, said Simon Bacon, assistant professor of exercise science at Concordia University in Montreal.

"But they actually aren’t," he said. "People can meet current activity guidelines and yet still have incredibly sedentary lifestyles."

There is growing evidence sedentary behaviour, irrespective of other behaviours, can be a risk factor for certain chronic diseases, said Catherine Chan, professor of nutritional science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

"It is an emerging area of science that we don’t really understand, necessarily, but it’s certainly getting people’s attention."

Potential health risks
increasingly understood

Sedentary behaviour is a growing behavioural risk factor for a number of health conditions, said Bacon.

"And while, traditionally, people have thought about sedentary behaviour as watching TV or playing on computers… more and more it’s be recognized and realized that this also applies to the workplace," he said.

"We’ve become more attached to sitting… and levels of sedentary behaviours are increasing."

In fact, the average office worker spends up to 75 per cent of her day sitting, according to a 2015 analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

A lot of it has to do with lifestyle changes that have emerged with advancing technology, said Paula Harvey, director of the cardiovascular research program at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

"If you think about it, we have shortcuts for just about everything. We sit in our car and drive to work, we sit in front of our computer for hours, we email our colleagues, we drive our cars home, a lot of people have pre-cooked meals, we have dishwashers, we have washing machines, and then we sit down and watch television and go to bed," she said.

"We’re not even doing the activities of daily living that only a few decades ago, we had to do just to survive."

Some people are now referring to sedentary behaviour as "sitting disease" because of the numerous health conditions linked to it, said Harvey.

"We know now that if you have a very sedentary lifestyle and spend a lot of your average day sitting… you have an increased risk of death compared to people who don’t spend all day sitting or sedentary," she said.

"We know also that not only does it increase risk of mortality, but it increases risk of cardiovascular disease… it also increases the risk of diabetes, hypertension, cancer…

It probably increases the risk of cognitive decline — sedentary lifestyle is associated with increased risk of dementia — and it also increases the risk of depression."

Cancer is one health risk that many people don’t realize is associated with sedentary behaviour, said Nuttall.

"There has been a lot more research coming out lately linking sedentary behaviour and an increased risk of cancer. In particular, we’re seeing it with two types of cancer: colorectal cancer and cancer of the uterus."

Because studies around sedentary behaviour are a relatively new science, the mechanisms are not quite definitive yet — researchers are only starting to really look at what is happening when you are sitting, said Guy Faulkner, professor in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto.

"The body is shutting down while you’re sitting, and some researchers have compared it — and it’s an extreme comparison — (that it) it simulates the effects of weightlessness among astronauts, where you see kind of accelerated bone and muscle loss," he said.

"Some theories suggest that excessive sitting is slowing down metabolism which… then affects our ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and metabolize fat."

Workplace interventions
include small changes

So what’s an office worker to do? A recent recommendation published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests workers stand for two hours out of every work day — and that’s not necessarily two hours straight, but could be two hours spread throughout the day in small increments.

"A good guideline is to try to reduce the amount of time that you spend sitting — particularly extended bouts of sitting. So we’re not trying to demonize sitting completely and say, ‘You’re not allowed to sit.’ But it’s more about trying to interrupt extended bouts of sitting," said Faulkner.

"So a general guideline that’s starting to emerge is at least every 30 minutes, to stand or to move around and get some light activity for a couple of minutes."

If you look at people who introduce more activity into their lifestyle, there is the potential they can greatly improve their risk factors, said Harvey.

"They can improve all of their outcomes. They can reduce their blood pressure, reduce the risk of developing diabetes, reduce the risk of having heart attacks, perhaps delay cognitive decline. Physical activity is a way of treating depression and reducing the risk of depression."

Even making small changes to the workday and building in reasons to walk around the office could make an impact, said Chan.

"Throwing away your personal printer in your office and having to walk to a common printer; not having your mail delivered to your door… all these little things are potentially, I think, beneficial," she said. "It certainly can’t hurt."

Standing desks, walking meetings or pedometer challenges are also some strategies that are gaining traction among employers, said Nuttall.

"The research right now is starting to look at what are the right approaches, what are the right interventions that will lower the risk? What we suspect is any behaviour where you take a break (from sitting), even once an hour for a minute or two, will be enough to get the body moving and change the body’s metabolism," he said.

"So all those initiatives — encouraging team to have a standing desk or have a walking meeting or use a pedometer… will have a benefit."

Ultimately, though, it’s about changing the culture of the workplace to promote a more active environment, said Faulkner.

"It’s about changing the culture of the workplace. Often, when we have meetings, the first thing we do when we go into the meeting is we sit down," he said. "There is this expectation that we are engaged in work and that involves sitting.

"It’s not as difficult to change the workplace culture, but it certainly needs top-down management support and approval in order for it to happen."

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