With COVID-19 keeping many indoors and working from home, it is important to make time to step away from your desk regularly. Chris Burrow, OSH Content Developer at IOSH, discusses new research examining the health implications of sitting at work for long periods of time – and some of the benefits of being more active in the workplace.
Most of us at some point in our lives will work for a long period of time — within a day, over a week, or over years. A lot of this working time can be spent sitting down. In fact, on average we spend 77 per cent of the working day sat down.
What’s the issue?
Sitting down for long periods can lead to an increased risk in the following health implications:
- back, neck or shoulder pains
- poor posture
- low concentration levels
- poor blood circulation
- heart disease
- presenteeism (which costs the UK £21.2 billion per year)
- absenteeism (which costs the UK £10.6 billion per year).
What does research say about sitting time?
Research1 has identified that we should be reducing our sitting time at work by at least 60 minutes per day, which can improve our health.
(Images by IOSH)
How long do we need to stand to incur health benefits?
Standing up for around 5 minutes every half hour has health benefits.
If you add light walking/movements to the 5 minutes of standing time it increases the health effects which is more effective than standing on its own.
If you add basic resistance exercises (eg, squats, lunges, press ups, star jumps) – this further increases the health effects.
Putting the health effects into perspective
Viewing statistics related to health effects are all well and good, but we need to put the health effects into perspective.
- High glucose levels can lead to:
- heart attacks and strokes
- a raised risk for heart disease
- kidney disease/failure
- weakened immune system
- erectile dysfunction
- neuropathy (nerve damage).
- Fatigue can lead to:
- Tiredness/energy depletion/lack of motivation
- inability to perform tasks – task errors
- muscle weakness
- a weaker immune system
- burnout and mental ill-health
- other wellbeing issues.
- High blood pressure can lead to:
- heart attacks/angina/strokes
- vascular dementia
- kidney disease
- peripheral artery disease (PAD)
- erectile dysfunction/lower sex drives
- lower muscle pain/cramping
- sleep apnea.
- High amounts of fats in the blood can lead to:
- higher blood pressure
- blood clots
- heart attacks/strokes.
The SMART Work Study
Some other relevant and timely health and wellbeing research2,3 has been jointly published by Loughborough University and the University of Leicester, United Kingdom (UK), which also provides some useful insights into the health benefits of being more active in the workplace.
The SMART Work study was conducted for 12 months. A range of behaviour change strategies were used to encourage workers to break up their sitting time.2,3 At the end of the study they found that there was an overall reduction in sitting time at work - by 83 minutes per day. Aside from the identified health benefits stated above, there was also a reduction in common workplace health issues such as neck and back pain.
There was organisational improvements too, such as:
- an increase in overall job performance
- a reduction in sickness presenteeism
- improved work and worker engagements
- higher energy levels
- a better quality of life.
Another surprising find was a £5 financial return for every £1 spent on the standing at work programme.4 Not only is standing at work regularly healthy for us, but it is also cost effective.
SMART Work – a free organisational toolkit
SMART Work is a free evidence-based toolkit. It is designed for organisations and they can use it to help their workers to sit less whilst at work.
The toolkit consists of three resource kits:
- kit 1: aimed at managers
- kit 2: aimed at workplace champions
- kit 3: aimed at individual workers.
Find out more about the SMART Work toolkit and papers reporting the evidence on the SMART Work study.
- Alkhajah TA, Reeves MM, Eakin EG, Winkler EAH, Owen N, Healy GN. Sit–stand workstations: a pilot intervention to reduce office sitting time. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2012;43(3):298-303.
- Edwardson CL, Yates T, Biddle, SJH, Davies, MJ, Dunstan D, Esliger D, Gray LJ, Jackson BR, O-Connell SE, Waheed G, Munir F. (2018). The effectiveness of the Stand More AT (SMArT) Work intervention: A cluster randomised controlled trial. BMJ, 363, doi: www.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k3870.
- Munir, Fehmidah & Biddle, Stuart & Davies, Melanie & Dunstan, D. & Esliger, David & Gray, Laura & Jackson, Ben & O'Connell, Sophie & Yates, Tom & Edwardson, Charlotte. (2018). Stand More AT Work (SMArT Work): using the behaviour change wheel to develop an intervention to reduce sitting time in the workplace. BMC Public Health. 18. 10.1186/s12889-018-5187-1.
- Munir F, Miller P, Biddle SJH, Davies MJ, Dunstan DW, Esliger DW, Gray LJ, O’Connell SE, Waheed, G, Yates T, Edwardson CL (2020). A cost and cost-benefit analysis of the Stand More at Work (SMArT Work) Intervention. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17, 1214; www.doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041214.