Over the past few years, prolonged sitting has emerged as a new health threat. “Sitting is the new smoking”, many headlines have warned.
The list of ills associated with hours of uninterrupted sitting includes neck and lower back pain, elevated risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other conditions, which can occur as your muscles switch into a “dormant” mode that compromises their ability to break down fats and sugars. Surprisingly, exercising before or after work isn’t enough to counteract these effects – sitting all day is harmful no matter how fit and active you are.
But even as awareness of the problem grows, proposed solutions like regular activity breaks and adjustable-height desks have run into a stubborn problem: workplace culture. We should all be aware that psychology is as important as physiology in the fight against sedentary behaviour, and that programs designed to tackle the problem will be more effective if launched on an organizational, rather than personal, scale.
In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in January (January 2014 Volume 46, Issue 1, Pages 30–40), researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia found that employees who were given adjustable-height desks together with ongoing individual and organizational-level guidance, reduced daily sitting time by almost three times as much (89 minutes vs. 33 minutes), as employees who were provided with the same adjustable-height desks – but no individual or organizational level guidance.
The bottom line? Be aware of the health risks associated with sitting for long periods. If your job requires long hours at a desk, ask for an adjustable-height desk (or some other set-up that does not require you to sit all day) and suggest that your employer put a program in place to inform and encourage people to reduce the time they spend sitting every day.
Given the costs associated with sedentary behaviour – one study estimated that the least active employees are less productive by about three hours per week – this all-too-common workplace culture is something that employers would be wise to address.
The simple conclusion, is that we should avoid sitting for prolonged periods whenever possible. If you must sit, it is recommended that you frequently change positions to ease the pressure on joints, muscles and discs.
For those already suffering with chronic low back or neck pain caused from past sitting habits – simply changing those habits now, may not be enough to resolve the pain. When this kind of pain persists, be sure to consult a registered physiotherapist who is trained to assess your condition. Your physiotherapist will teach you exercises designed to resolve your specific neck or back issues, and to show you how to stay active safely!