Noora Hasan isn’t worried about the amount of activity in her life. She’s a runner, works out at a gym a couple times a week, and even works part time at Gymit. But in her other part-time job at the Boston Eye Group, she, like so many other workers, spends nearly all of her time sitting. “I’m basically sitting the entire time I’m with patients,” she says.
It’s easy for Hasan and others like her to think that walking to or from work or hitting the gym when not behind a desk is enough to stave off potential health problems that can come from sitting all day.
Unfortunately, it turns out that may not be the case.
A new consensus statement published by an international group of experts says full-time workers should aim to accumulate at least two hours of standing and light activity throughout the day — during working hours — to keep healthy. The statement says that optimally workers should try to get up to four hours.
Yes, that’s half the day if you’re an average worker.
The recommendations were commissioned by Public Health England and the Active Working Community Interest Company and published in the British Journal of Sport Medicine in March. They’re based on current scientific evidence including long-term epidemiological and controlled studies looking at the consequences of sitting.
In the past few years, dozens of studies have harped on the dangers of being sedentary. Last June, researchers from the American Cancer Society and the University of Texas School of Public Health looked at the habits of more than 1,300 men and found those who reported sitting more than 22 hours per week were more likely to have increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels compared with those who spent fewer than nine hours seated per week.
The new recommendations are “a shift, based on research,” says Alan Hedge, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University and a coauthor of the statement. He says that we used to think doing an hour at the gym before or after work was enough to keep us healthy, but in actuality, sitting regularly for even as little as about an hour can increase heart-disease risk.
The core recommendations of the new statement say seated-based work should be regularly broken up with standing work. They even recommend sit-stand desks, though they caution against static standing postures, which can cause blood to pool in the legs.
“Breaking sitting not just with standing, but movement, that’s the key piece,” says Dinesh John, assistant professor of health sciences at Northeastern University, who studies the effects of standing and treadmill desks. In his 2011 study of 12 office workers, he found nine months of using a treadmill desk helped decrease overweight and obese workers’ waist and hip circumference and total cholesterol, but he says the same can’t necessarily be said of standing at a desk.
Most importantly, the recommendations take aim directly at employers, saying they should promote the idea among staffers that prolonged sitting can increase the risk of cardiometabolic diseases and death.
“I was glad to see that they’re recognizing that this is sort of a step toward what needs to happen next,” says Donna Scarborough, director of research for sports performance and analytics at Massachusetts General Hospital. Scarborough says now we need studies and controlled trials where these guidelines are implemented within a company to see how they actually affect employees and company productivity.
Recommendations coauthor Hedge says employers may need to rethink how we design work. We have a much more sophisticated understanding of how the body’s metabolism works now, he says, and accordingly, we should design our workplaces to reflect that. “With smartphones, tablets, work is no longer location-fixed for much of what you do,” says Hedge. We should take advantage of that, he says, as many already do.
According to Global Work Place Analytics, a research company that examines emerging workplace strategies, nearly 3 percent of US employees now telecommute — a rise of nearly 80 percent from 2005 to 2012.
Most full-time workers, however, are still tethered to an office. In response employers are slowly beginning a transition to more dynamic workplaces. Sun Life Financial officials in Wellesley Hills says they don’t just have ergonomic workstations with sit-stand desks, “we offer an on-site fitness facility and walking trails to encourage employees to find time to get active during the workday,” says Cara Lamakina, manager of Sun Life’s Wellness Center. They even have a “chair yoga” program to teach employees how to get movement in even while sitting during the day.
Flexible work arrangements and the ability to walk around during the day are also now the kinds of perks younger people expect, says Hedge. After seeing years of YouTube videos of workplace tours of Google or Airbnb, increasingly young people want workplaces that allow them to get out of the traditional cubicle. Furthermore, flexible offices and schedules can actually increase workplace efficiency. In a 2011 study in the journal Cognition, 84 people were given a repetitive computerized task to focus on for 50 minutes. Those given two brief breaks were better at focusing for the entire period and showed less decline in their performance than those given no breaks.
There are also financial benefits that employers can use to lure employees out of their seats. John Hancock Insurance rolled out a program in April promising discounts for those who started wearing an activity tracker and exercised regularly. “If we can get our customers to live longer, healthier lives, that’s actually creating an economic value,” says Mike Doughty, president of John Hancock Insurance. He says companies can create a similar program to rein in their health care costs, giving back some of the money to employees.
For the many people still stuck staring at three gray walls most of the day, there are smaller solutions to get the two to four hours of movement.
“I try to recommend to people whenever possible to do walking meetings,” says JoAnn Manson, chief of the division of preventative medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Especially if it’s a one-on-one meeting with someone, you can say, ‘Let’s just go out and walk around the block.’ ” She says the recommendations can be hard for those with busy days, but even simple tasks like taking a call can be an excuse to be in motion, such as pacing around the office while using an earpiece.
Manson also recommends setting an alarm, which she uses herself on her phone to remind her to get out of her chair at least every hour. “People can be active even while they’re sitting if they make a real effort to move around — flex and extend muscles, and move arms and legs around.”
Alison Bruzek is a science writer in Boston.