Stop me if you heard this before: Sitting at work is killing you. Your physical inactivity during work hours is leading to serious health problems. Better get a bicycle desk. Or a leg swing desk. Or sit on a giant exercise ball. Do something before it’s too late.
We’ve heard that refrain from countless thought leaders, workplace designers and blog writers. I wrote my first article on the subject way back in 2009, when this new thing called a treadmill desk became en vogue. (By the way: Are treadmill desks still a thing?)
But scientific research on the subject is far more mixed than the popular narrative suggests. Research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that there wasn’t much evidence to support a causal relationship between occupational sitting and health risks. A 2015 paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health found no association between occupational sitting and cardiovascular risk in salaried workers, professionals and those in home businesses. A 2016 study in the same journal found no difference in risk between sedentary and non-sedentary employees.
Let’s not confuse the issue. A extremely sedentary lifestyle is bad for your health. If your day typically goes like this—wake up, sit in front of the TV, drive to work, sit during your workday, drive home, sit in front of the TV, fall asleep—you shouldn’t be surprised about bad health outcomes. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) says physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality. But, the time you spend sitting at work isn’t strong enough to create poor health outcomes, said Dr. Peter Smith, associate scientific director and a senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto.
“When studies tease apart the amount of time you are sedentary outside of work, and the amount of time you are sedentary at work, they find your sedentariness/activity outside of work is a better predictor of most chronic conditions, than what you do at work,” said Smith.
Helen Berresford, head of the interior design group at London-based architecture firm Sheppard Robson, says that many offices have “gotten quite good at ergonomics, so when people are sitting at their desks for long periods of time, they’re in the right positions.”
Her company has done numerous workplace studies, finding that high-performance professionals aren’t keen on sitting in one position all day, and that most employees only sit for about 50 percent of their workdays.
“It’s a misnomer that we sit at our desks all day long, and that managers want their staff sitting in the same positions for hours on end,” she said.
Still, the “work-sitting-is-killing-you narrative” persists. It’s led many to choose standing desks, hoping it’ll keep their legs strong, backs straight and provide a more active way to work. Well, that narrative isn’t based in science either.
A study by Smith that appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that workers employed in occupations that required predominantly standing were almost twice as likely to have heart disease than people who sit during work. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that standing at your desk hardly affects energy expenditure. In fact, participants burned a mere 24 extra calories for every three hours of standing. Standing for prolonged periods at work can also lead to varicose veins, and leg, back and general muscle pains.
“The opposite of sitting is not standing,” said Smith. “The opposite of sitting is moving.”
Movement is the Answer. Here’s How to Design it Into Your Workplace
Regardless of your opinion on the sit/stand debate, everybody agrees on one thing: Adding movement to your day is healthy. So here are a few easy ways you can design more movement into your employees’ workday:
It starts with culture. If your manager looks at you funny if you take a lap around the office at 10 a.m. or stretch out at your desk — you’ll lose all chances of ingraining healthy movement into the workday. It starts from the top!
Create a hub. People want a place to hang out that’s not their lonely desk. Offer them a variety of spaces like living room areas with sofas and coffee tables, or lunchroom tables that encourage conversation. Those inviting spaces will get them out of their desks more often.
Organize movement breaks. Give people a chance to shake, stretch and move around with a quick break. It can be fast, about five to 10 minutes should do it. Take it a step further by organizing a yoga class, stair climb or lunchtime walk.
Walking meetings. Why sit around a conference room table when you can take a walk? It’s a great way to get people out of their comfort zones and moving around. Without people staring into their laptops waiting for the meeting to end, employees might just pay more attention.
Treadmill desks. If workers want one, it might just be worth it. Walking at a low speed while working can certainly help blood flow.
Make a staircase the centerpiece. This isn’t possible in every office, but if you get the chance to start from scratch, create a floating staircase. Having the stairs in the center of the workplace, not in a dingy stairwell/fire escape can entice people actually use them more often.
Create a wellness challenge. Count steps. See how many people go for a walk or jog at lunch. Entice people with prizes. Not only will people incorporate movement into their days, they’ll likely shed some pounds in the process.
Strategic placement of coffee and snacks. Make sure people have to walk to a central area to get the essentials. Not only will it provide some much needed movement, it’ll help promote impromptu conversations between co-workers (and that’s where some of the best ideas originate.)
Encourage face-to-face interactions. Enough Slack. Enough email. Make people get up and talk to one another in person. Their bodies will thank you for it.