Everyone knows the importance of exercise to combat America’s obesity epidemic and the growing tide of obesity-related diseases. The next frontier in the effort to counter expanding waistlines may be the average U.S. office building. Many recent studies point to the hazards of sitting for long periods of time in sedentary, office-based jobs, which range from weight gain to premature death. Now, health experts are proposing big changes to workplaces to get people out of their chairs for parts of the day.
According to studies published in a recent issue of the journal Ergonomics In Design, workstation alternatives that allow desk work to be done while standing, walking, biking or stepping reduce the total time spent sitting without affecting work performance much. Employees appear to like these alternatives, too. Active workplace strategies include:
- Sit-stand workstations
- Walking workstations
- Cycling workstations
- Portable stepping devices
- Portable pedal exercise machines
- Elliptical machines
- Physical activity breaks
- Prompting software (such as email reminders)
- Skip-stop elevators
Companies may be willing to consider active workplace design—and not just for their top executives in private offices, experts say. The health problems related to sedentary jobs can no longer be ignored. Sedentary employees now make up 80 percent of the workforce, increasing from about half that amount during the last 50 years, says Nicolaas P. Pronk, vice president and chief science officer for HealthPartners, an integrated health system in Minnesota, and adjunct professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The shift from working on one’s feet to sitting at a desk translates to a decrease in energy expenditure of about 100 calories a day. That means as much as 80 percent of the average body-weight increase among adults over the past 50 years can be attributed to society’s shift to a largely sedentary workforce.
Much more research is needed to figure out how to incorporate activity into the office work day and whether the investment in equipment and new workstations will pay off. But so far, Pronk says, studies show that active workstations yield many benefits, with no detrimental effects on work performance.
“An active workplace facilitates a level of movement and activity among workers that reduces prolonged sitting time, has positive effects on selected health markers, enhances mood states, may improve levels of worker performance and productivity, and has not been associated with any negative outcomes,” he says.
So far, there seems to be a trend in companies installing sit-stand desks, the journal’s authors note. While such desks may not help promote activity, “reducing seated exposure and rotating frequently between sitting and standing has been shown to result in positive health outcomes, reduced discomfort, and increased work performance,” the study notes.
Workstations that promote walking, jogging, or stepping can increase muscle mass and energy expenditure, strengthen the body, and promote brain function. While active workstations may not be on the horizon for many employees, there are still ways to bust up your office sit-in, experts note. Simply put, the key is to get up and move around, even if just for 10 or 15 minutes.
How much activity do you need? Health experts recently proposed the first-ever guidance on how much time office workers should be on their feet in the course of a normal working day: two hours. Ideally, the authors of the study suggest, workers should stand for about four hours a day. According to current estimates, between 65 and 75 percent of working hours are spent sitting.