Sit down, get to work, get sick

Sitting for longer than four hours while watching television is likely to increase one’s risk of suffering a cardio-vascular disease (CVD), according to a new study reported in “Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association”  in January 2010.

David Dunstan

The research was headed by Dr David Dunstan, Head of the Physical Activity Laboratory in the Division of Metabolism and Obesity at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Australia.  The study is Australian but can easily be transposed to other countries. (Several audio reports are now available online, one from NPR)

The significance for safety professionals comes not from the published report itself but the accompanying media release where Dr Dunstan speculates on the broader social issues behind his findings:

“What has happened is that a lot of the normal activities of daily living that involved standing up and moving the muscles in the body have been converted to sitting…  Technological, social, and economic changes mean that people don’t move their muscles as much as they used to – consequently the levels of energy expenditure as people go about their lives continue to shrink.   For many people, on a daily basis they simply shift from one chair to another – from the chair in the car to the chair in the office to the chair in front of the television.”

Dunstan was further quoted as saying:

“In addition to doing regular exercise, avoid sitting for prolonged periods and keep in mind to ‘move more, more often’.   Too much sitting is bad for health.”

As desk-based and office work has increased more of the working day is spent sitting.  Much ergonomics advice has been heard over the years that encourages regular stand-ups or walk-around breaks from desk work so as the ease the muscular burden of sitting “for too long”.  (Regular cigarette breaks may have had an ergonomic benefit in the past but the cancerous trade-off was quite high).

Dunstan’s research suggests that prolonged sitting may now carry an increased cardio-vascular disease risk.

The expected OHS response will be a continuing development of ergonomic furniture but this time sold on the basis cardio-vascular benefits.  Perhaps a comfortable executive office chair with a little pin that pokes through the seat at regular intervals?!

People love buying symptomatic relief but the research findings demand more if companies are truly going to combat increasing CVD risks.  The research findings show an increase in blood sugars and blood fats that would be best countered by standing up and moving around, and it is likely that Dr Dunstan’s research will provide fodder to those health campaigners who are trying to have health risks accepted as a work-related phenomenon or, at least, have the workplace as the point of contact with health professionals.

Although it seems to have stalled, in recent years there was a push for safe design of buildings and workplaces.  It could be argued that the way administrative/sedentary work has been conducted for years evolved into an unsafe design.  OHS professionals may need to see their workstations and their workplaces through new eyes and eyes that extend beyond the latest ergonomic board room chair.

Dr Dunstan sees technology as one of the reasons for prolonged sitting but perhaps some technologies will reduce the need to sit.  Coincidentally in early January 2010, the Consumer Electronic Show was awash with portable devices such as “e-reader, tablet, and slate devices”.  There are also several reports about the continuing growth of teleworking which, for some jobs with the right technology, could be done anywhere, and sitting or standing.

The issue of sedentary work gained considerable media attention in 2007 when prolonged sitting was linked to an increased risk of deep-vein thrombosis.  This gave rise to shambling long-distance air travellers and regular (usually hourly) stand-up breaks in long OHS conferences but it also sparked the debate on how long workers should sit before moving or stretching.  Dr Dunstan’s research will again fuel this debate.  The type of debate will be set by how the popular media respond to the publication of his findings.

OHS professionals need to read the research and integrate it, where suitable, into their own risk and harm reduction strategies – and be prepared for the question of “how long should I be sitting at my desk before it is unhealthy?”

Kevin Jones

Categories design, evidence, health, offices, OHS, research, safety, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , ,

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