Do you start your day with a run or workout? Good start, but it’s not enough. If you work in an office, you’re sitting yourself to death.
According to Men’s Health, most employees sit 10-plus hours a day, more time than they spend sleeping. The physiological changes that take place as you sit your way through a typical work day are downright scary. For starters, blood sugar rises while you’re seated; muscles become tighter; and blood flow to the heart slows, even in those who exercise regularly. Lethargy sets in because a lack of movement causes your blood sugar to drop. Sitting for 3 hours straight—not unusual with a calendar full of conference calls and meetings—cuts your circulation in half.
It’s startling but true that those who sit the majority of their waking hours have two and half times the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Regular exercise and taking a five-minute “walk break” every hour helps, but it’s simply not enough. According to Smithsonian, incorporating standing, pacing and other forms of movement into your work routine is the answer—and standing at your desk for at least part of the day is the easiest way to accomplish this.
Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic who has studied this issue, reports that there are powerful health benefits to be gained when we “default to standing.” One of the most useful is related to obesity. In a fascinating experiment, he and his colleagues recruited a group of office workers who engaged in little routine exercise, put them all on an identical diet that contained about 1,000 more calories than they’d been consuming previously and forbid them from changing their exercise habits. But despite the standardized diet and exercise regimens, some participants gained weight, while others stayed slim.
How is this possible with the addition of so many extra calories? The answer is that participants who weren’t gaining weight were up and walking around about two hours more per day on average, even though all of them sat at a desk all day. Even things as mundane as walking to a colleague’s office rather than emailing, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator made the difference. By extension, if one stands at a desk instead of sitting and moves around the office occasionally during the day, the health benefits can be significant.
Other major health benefits resulting from Dr. Levine’s prescription include a reduction in metabolic syndrome, a condition that dramatically increases the chance of type 2 diabetes. And, research has revealed that a number of biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein, are present in higher levels in people who sit for long periods of time, which are thought to be tied to the development of cancer.
It is time to rethink how we perform office work. Even if you spend most of your time in front of a computer or on the phone, you can still dramatically improve your health at work. The easiest ways of accomplishing a less sedentary work routine are either using a desk that can be raised and lowered or a tall chair that you can pull up to your standing desk when you do need to sit. Also, get in the habit of standing up and moving around at least every hour. It’s important to ease into your new routine, by standing for just a few hours a day at first while your body becomes used to the strain, and move around a bit, by shifting your position as you work—and don’t forget to pace during conference calls. This will reduce your risk of back, knee or foot problems.
Deborah Hecker is Vice President, Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility.