The federal government wants workers to “kick the sit” out of their daily routine by getting up and standing every 30 minutes while on the job.
The “Sit Kicker” initiative will see the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) allocate $1,164,360 over two years for as many as 1,500 businesses to order two free sit-to-stand work desks and work towards “more stand-friendly physical work environments.”
“The target audience is principally workplaces where there is a high degree of sedentary behaviours, so it tends to be desk-bound or office environments, where we know that people are sitting for long stretches of the day,” said Paul Estey, chief innovation officer at Public Inc. in Toronto, the public relations firm tasked with rolling out the program.
The program also includes a Sit Kicker app and, so far, more than 600 companies have requested the kits, while more than 200 have set them up.
“This is a starting point on a much longer journey but we are very encouraged by the early results,” said Estey.
While Sit Kicker’s goal is “shifting workplace culture,” that is easier said than done. There is plenty of knowledge about health, but not enough tools and support, he said.
“(This initiative is a) cost-effective means of starting to engage a workplace around the shift in behaviour that needs to happen to promote the right healthy behaviour, while not unduly impacting productivity and morale,” he said.
“(It should) help to build the business case for HR professionals and senior management to make a more permanent investment in changes to workplace environment and culture.”
Sedentary behaviour is an independent risk factor in premature mortality, morbidity, obesity, diabetes and cancer, according to Guy Faulkner, a professor at the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver.
It can also be associated with cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and poor bone and joint health.
But it is still an “emerging science,” according to Faulkner, as people often engage in other behaviours while sitting that are not beneficial and might exacerbate the effects of sitting, such as eating junk food while watching television.
“Evidence seems to suggest that we could see health benefits when people interrupt their sitting,” he said. “Adults should try to interrupt their sitting every 30 minutes and get up and move.”
There is also evidence coming out now that sedentary behaviour increases all-cause mortality, said Scott Leatherdale, associate professor at the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
It’s about moving between positions, according to Pete Segar, CEO of Ergotron, a St. Paul, Minn.-based company that makes sit-stand desks. “That’s really the magic… trying to promote moving between comfortable positions.”
Standing improves back and neck comfort and can help increase the metabolic rate, he said.
“When you are sitting, your heart rate is down, you have all sorts of chemical changes in your body that are causing your body to relax and turn into what they call that sedentary state,” he said.
“I won’t go so far as to say a sit-to-stand desk fixes things that are broken. However, people that have sore backs often report they are much more comfortable.”
When people are standing, their heart rate is up higher, and they are much more able to do what some people call micro-motion, said Segar.
When people are upright, they often sway side-to-side, he said. “You introduce small amounts of motion that actually are meaningful in changing your metabolism.”
Standing is better than sitting when it comes to activating parts of your core, said Leatherdale, “but you also want some movement in there too because then that activates other parts of your core and reduces constant stress put on something by remaining in a static position.”
Having a height-adjustable desk is good for people who develop lower-back pain with sitting, either through an injury or the aging process, said Abigail Overduin, ergonomics advisor at UBC, “and if we can offer them an option to be able to continue working in a standing posture, that would help (alleviate) absenteeism.”
Aside from health benefits, the introduction of sit-stand desks might also boost productivity.
“There is some limited evidence that suggests that there is an improvement in feelings of energy and feelings of being better able to concentrate,” said Faulkner, but he added the proof is “tentative” and the data has only measured short-term effects.
Healthier people tend to perform better, said Leatherdale, “so it wouldn’t surprise me if this had an impact on improving people’s health at some level; people should see an increase in productivity.”
However, there is not yet enough data to indicate any real health benefits to working vertically, according to a review released in 2016 by the Cochrane Work Group in London, U.K., a non-profit that reviews health-care interventions and diagnostic tests.
In trying to find any comparative research that would show the benefits of sit-stand workstations, the researchers found only six studies, said Jos Verbeek, co-ordinating editor at Cochrane and senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Kupio, Finland.
“It’s not a big amount of evidence that we have and it’s not very high-quality evidence.”
The mantra “Sitting is the new smoking” is erroneous, he said.
“You should take that with a grain of salt… The effect of smoking cannot be repaired by being physically active, whereas the effect of sitting probably can,” said Verbeek.
“With behavioural change, it’s usually not so difficult to do it in the short-term, but to keep it in the long run, it’s much more difficult.”
If people want to do something about the physical inactivity at work, they should be physically active outside work, said Verbeek.
“The advice the WHO (World Health Organization) gives us is to be physically active for at least 150 minutes per week in moderate to vigorous exercise, which is much more than standing up,” he said. “Instead of concentrating on standing up, it’s much better to cycle to work.”
The PHAC plan is of no use unless the results are measured and made public, according to Leatherdale.
“It’s in the Canadian public’s best interest to have this robustly evaluated and then disseminated appropriately,” said Leatherdale.
“If it doesn’t work, and they generate evidence that it doesn’t work, as long as they are generating evidence of ‘Here’s who it worked for, here’s who it didn’t work for.’ But if it does work, then hopefully they’ve evaluated it in a way where it’s strong scientific evidence of ‘Here’s the benefit of people who have participated in it.’”
On that note, Public Inc. will be working with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said Estey, to do “independent, third-party evaluation of the program to understand both the pre- and post-level of engagement and satisfaction that those professionals have with the program, and whether or not it has affected workplace culture and behaviour.”
But it would be even greater if such an initiative was started earlier, said Leatherdale.
“If they really want to see large-scale population change on people to stop being sedentary, the time to start is in school.”
Currently, schools are providing the opposite message, he said.
“That’s when we’re doing a really good job of training them to sit on their butts all day.”
Proceed with caution, shift workplace culture
Workers who consider switching to standing while on the job shouldn’t “lose focus of all the other elements” said Overduin.
“They might be standing, but they might be standing and bending, or they might be standing and their shoulders are elevated when they have to reach their keyboard.”
It is important to place the keyboard height relative to the elbows, and the monitor height relative to the eyes, said Overduin.
“From my experience, I see people who are so committed to: ‘I need to stand,’ ‘Sitting is the new smoking,’ ‘I can’t sit, I need to stand,’ and then they end up working with very awkward postures.”
Too much standing in one place can also bring on adverse health effects such as rounding of the spinal column, which in turn puts more pressure on vertebrae.
“Anytime you maintain one posture, you probably slowly start to degrade your posture over time: if you stood all the time, you would probably start to stand in more of a slouch posture,” said Overduin.
As well, lower-back pain and varicose veins from “static posture” are risks to be considered with too much standing, she said.
The role of human resources in all this should be about conveying the message of trying to interrupt extended bouts of sitting, said Faulkner.
“It’s about changing the culture and encouraging people to stand, if they like, during meetings.”
Instead of sitting in a boardroom for half an hour, people can either walk around campus or walk around outside, said Leatherdale.
“You can talk just as easily and people tend to like those meetings a lot more.”
Onboarding is also a good opportunity for HR departments to help shift behaviour by asking employees if they want this as an option, he said.
“When someone’s starting in a workplace, ask them if they want a standing desk and let them make the decision there.”
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