Much of today’s work takes place while sitting. This means that adults with an 8-hour workday often sit for at least 8 hours a day–perhaps even more, if their evenings are given to leisure habits like watching television. A 2010 study estimated that 70% of average adults spend their time being sedentary, while the remaining 30% engage only in light activity. This move towards a sedentary population has had a number of deleterious effects on health, which in turn have given rise to workplace interventions to encourage workers to get out of their office chairs.
Extended periods of sedentary behavior are linked to a wide variety of health problems, including increased risk of cardiometabolic problems in children and adults, such as elevated blood sugar.4 We know that naps and occasional mornings of sleeping in can’t undo the damage from a chronic sleep deficit; similarly, research has found that bursts of activity (for example, being active only on weekends) do not counteract long periods of being sedentary. While any activity has a positive effect on cardiometabolic health, this positive effect is outweighed by the negative effects of being sedentary for too long. If increasing activity can’t counteract the effects of sedentary time in the office, is there nothing we can do?
Luckily, recent research has shown that the negative effects of sitting can be dramatically altered by even short interruptions. Standing desks and other methods that encourage standing at work were found to reduce postprandial blood glucose increases by up to 43% in one small study–even though the participants were not more active when standing versus sitting. A relatively new intervention, standing desks have not yet been well studied, and research findings so far are sometimes conflicting. Treadmill desks that allow one to walk in place while working have been the subject of more robust, replicated studies that show positive health benefits. Treadmill desks increase calories burned and time spent being active over the course of the day. These effects may be greater for obese users.
Indeed, encouraging patients to move around, rather than simply stand up, is more strongly associated with improvements in cardiometabolic health. Brief periods of activity (like walking) improve markers of cardiometabolic health in children and both endothelial health and postprandial glycemia in adults, while simply standing up does not. One study showed that just 2 minutes of low-intensity walking for every 20 minutes of sitting improved glucose metabolism among overweight/obese adults.
Another recent study found that non-exercise associated thermogenesis (heat production) caused by the movements of fidgeting reduced the relationship between sedentary behavior and all causes of mortality. In a study of nearly 11,000 women, those who reported high levels of fidgeting did not have increased levels of mortality, even if the women sat for over 7 hours a day. So, while it seems that you can’t make up for sitting all day at work by going for a run in the evening, just moving more at your desk or getting up and walking around periodically can. Health interventions clearly don’t need to be complicated or time-consuming!
Supporting the notion that movement, not just standing up, is responsible for the positive health effects of interrupting sitting, under-desk exercisers also seem to improve cardiometabolic health. One recent study investigated the use of under-the-desk, stationary pedaling interventions. Office workers were provided with under-desk pedaling devices and over 16 weeks received three short weekly emails encouraging them to pedal. This small study found improvements in cardiometabolic biomarkers (including total fat mass, resting heart rate, and body fat percentage) in those who used the devices. In addition, participants reported better ability to concentrate and fewer days missed because of health problems when pedaling was incorporated into their day. All 30 participants in the pedaling cohort showed improvements in cardiometabolic biomarkers and productivity with an average of 50 minutes of pedaling a day. Participants in the control group who only received ergonomic workstations and health-related emails showed smaller improvements.
In an era of sedentary work, talking with patients about simple ways they can change their daily habits can have profound effects on their health. Emphasizing that the frequency of movement alters risks for metabolic syndrome, glucose regulation, and overall cardiometabolic health and explaining how little activity it takes to provide those benefits may provide just the incentive office workers need.