From time to time the debate over the dangers of sitting all day at work reignites in the popular media, with clickbait slogans like “sitting is the new smoking”, or “your office chair is trying to kill you” being recycled.  The apparent answer to slow-death-by-chair is to get yourself a stand-up desk and add years to your life.  If you do decide to keep using a chair a day, no doubt there will soon be an exorbitant tax placed on such filthy habits, they’ll only come in white, and will be adorned with gruesome photos of the hunched over figures of persistent chair abusers…

I’ve enjoyed the use of not only a standing desk for the past 8 or so years, but I’ve also dabbled in using a Swissball as a chair (which was my gateway drug into the alternative seating scene), and I’ve had the use of a treadmill desk, where I’d plod along at a leisurely 4-5kph whilst doing my work.  I was literally launched off my treadmill desk and across the room at 12:51pm on February 22nd, 2011.   I’ve watched with interest the number of modern office blocks going up around Christchurch being fitted with electric height-adjustable desks (I’m standing at one now in my own office as I write this).  Sadly, most seem to stuck in their low, seated positions.  Indeed, my experience and observations over the years has been that even when standing desks are there as an option, very few people use them.

This issue has come to the fore for me again recently as I begin to do more ergonomic assessments for an organisation I am contracted to.  Their national stores are being refitted to offer staff the option of their own desk (where they are seated), or a “hot-desk” they can stand at.  I have been advising staff to mix and match their time at each station to break up their day; that the variety of positions on offer over the day is much better than being fixed at either one.  I generally advise that people sit when they have to do their most focused work, and stand when they are doing cognitively lighter tasks, such as general admin and answering emails.  Time will tell whether this advice is taken up.

A few years back, I was sent this question from a New Zealand-based health and safety magazine – SAFEGUARD:

How seriously should we take the health risks of “excessive workplace sitting”? (Especially when compared to the known risks of poor nutrition, lack of exercise and smoking).

My answer, from 2015, seems as relevant to the most recent discussions over the dangers of sitting as it did back then:

This is certainly an issue to take seriously, though it is also one which is subject to a lot of hype and hyperbole. The research is generally indicative of there being a detrimental effect to our physiology from prolonged sitting, but we need to be mindful of the limitations of what such research can show and how it can be interpreted. We are also seeing examples of where this relatively new focus on sitting is being used to deflect from other issues. For example, one major soft drink manufacturer has recently launched a “chairs are taking over” campaign, possibly trying to deflect from the negative press they are getting for the product they produce.

We see changes in physiological parameters with prolonged sitting time, such as increased insulin resistance, impaired blood vessel function and blood flow, and decreases in good cholesterol, all adding up to a decline in metabolic health. But is this effect on our metabolic health of greater importance than nutrition, exercise, and smoking? Based on the data to date, and what we see in the real world, it might be a stretch to conclusively say this at this point.

In the real world, poor diet quality, low incidental and planned activity rates, poor sleep, and high stress, all go together, and the health effects of each factor, individually, are difficult to tease out. It could in fact be that the detrimental effects on health we are seeing with increased sitting time could are just be a marker for some of these other lifestyle issues. Perhaps the person who sits for prolonged periods is the same person whose diet quality is so low, or they are so under slept, that they are so lacking in energy to do much more than sit all day? It is difficult to answer this question because the effects of eating a highly processed diet, not sleeping enough, being sedentary (and we can add in smoking to boot), overlap considerably.

Perhaps the more important issue is less about comparing excessive workplace sitting with poor nutrition or a lack of exercise, and more about seeing all of these aspects as deeply intertwined symptoms of a bigger problem – that our modern work environments (and often our home environments as well) – which includes everything from the type of food that is readily available, to how much movement is encouraged structurally and/or socially (or, due to workplace health & safety rules, how much movement is often discouraged), to the amount of bright natural light available, to the types and number of sleep disruptors we face across the day – are all mismatched to the basic needs of human biology. Even the dress code has an influence. The narrow shoes worn by both men and women as part of the standard corporate uniform hardly lend themselves to people “collecting more steps”.

Put an animal in a cage, feed it highly processed food, stress it out, interfere with its sleep, sunlight, and socialisation needs, and I don’t think making it stand up a bit more frequently in the cage is really the first issue to address.

It’s the environment, stupid.

If the option to frequently move between sitting and standing is there, people should, as practically as they can, take it.  Being fixed in one position all day, be it seated or standing up, is not great because our biology doesn’t cope well with being fixed in any position for a prolonged period of time.   But the wider issue here is that we humans, and our daily habits, are largely functions of the environments we have around us (structural/social/cultural).  It is both an unfortunate and unspoken truth that when we all talk about workplace wellness, we invariably focus on the health habits of individuals and ignore the fact that organisations operate more like a collective or hive, with not only physical environment constraints, but social and cultural ones too.

One cannot go into a workplace with a small footprint, for example, where each individual is bound to their computer terminal, with everything they need at their fingertips (including company-sponsored water bottles), and where it is socially and culturally frowned upon to not be at your desk (how can you be working if you are not in front of your computer?), and preach the gospel to these individuals of collecting steps, steps challenges, getting out in the light, and other such health habits.  These individuals are largely powerless in these environments.  Showing them how they could benefit from opting out of these constraints while knowing full well they can’t, becomes very dis-empowering.

Are there simple solutions to address these constraints?  No.  A silver bullet.  Nope.  A one-thing-organisations-can-do-that-doesn’t-cost-much-is-easy-to-implement-and-is-the-least-disruptive? I wish.  What I can say is that answer to the risks of excessive workplace sitting are not going to be addressed simply through offering excessive workplace standing.

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