Standing Up for Better Health

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"How do you like your new job?" I asked an acquaintance, an accountant who used to work at an organization with which I was involved. "I like the work," he said, "but what I don't like is sitting all day in a small cubicle, staring at a computer screen. " He told me that his former job at this nonprofit required going to meetings in several offices scattered all over the building. "Some days I would walk what seemed to be miles, when I had several people to see. Not anymore. If I don't leave my cubicle for lunch, I don't move for eight or nine hours. I think all this sitting is doing something to my body."

He was right to be concerned. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine confirmed what he and many others chained to their chairs and computers for hours at a time have suspected: sitting too long is not good for our health. [1] Scientists in Toronto reviewed several studies that looked at the association between sedentary behavior, health and longevity. While it is true that sitting still does prevent certain dangers to our health like falling (unless one falls off a chair), or being attacked by a grizzly bear, there is now good evidence that not moving may shorten our lifespan. According to the journal article, sedentary behavior is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and perhaps even cancer. Exercising for 30 to 60 minutes a day helps, but it doesn't help enough, to offset the health risks of being stuck in a chair or car or truck for 8 or 9 hours a day.

Commuting adds its own sitting time to that of the workplace. My acquaintance no longer can walk or bike to work as he did in his previous job, but now sits in a car from 45 minutes to an hour and a half morning and evening, and given the traffic he encounters, he is obviously not alone.

What are we going to do about this problem? Other than lunch or bathroom breaks, few people have an excuse or opportunity to leave their chairs or stools whether they are security guards or day traders. Ironically, the only people who seem to have an excuse to move off their seats are smokers who are permitted to go outside for a cigarette. This is not a recommendation to smoke, but it doesn't seem fair that non-smokers can't also go outside for a mini-recess.

A few years back I volunteered to visit people in an assisted living facility. What I noticed was that everyone were either lying on a bed or sitting. Even those who could still walk weren't. Somehow this seemed all right because the average age was over 90 (although we know now how important exercise is at any age), and I assumed that after one became old enough, it was all right to sit out the rest of one's life. However, I suspect if I were to visit a typical office or assembly-line person working at a conveyor belt, most people would be sitting as much as the old folk. It is a sobering thought.

The sitting problem has not received as much attention as it should, given the financial and physical costs from the increased incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and cancer among the sedentary. We don't even know how inert we are. Perhaps a way to start to change this situation is to find out. The many devices that can measure physical activity could be used to see how much we move at work, while commuting, and at home.

How much and how often should we be moving? An author of the study, Robert Alter, recommends standing or moving one to three minutes every half hour and standing or exercising during commercials while watching television. He claims that exercising 30 minutes a day does not compensate for, "23 and a half hours of doing nothing..." In a sense he is endorsing fidgeting, e.g., the inability to sit, as a way to stay healthier. Some offices give their workers desks that can be raised so it is possible to work standing up as well as sitting. And desk-like platforms that can be attached to a small treadmill have some popularity, as does a pedaling device under their desk but again these are not commonplace. Bringing a dog to work that needs constant walking is another option, but even fewer workplaces endorse this.

The most important aspect of moving while working is simply remembering to do it. Computer or cell phone beeps as reminders are really necessary, because it is too easy to become so involved in work that moving is forgotten. More difficult is convincing employers of the importance of allowing their employees to stop working long enough to take a moving break. It is hard to believe that a supervisor will stop the conveyor belt, or halt the line of people going through security check, to allow a worker to stretch and walk around for two minutes every half hour. Can one enforce more frequent rest stops for long-distance truck drivers or bus drivers? There are long term health implications to budget in, but isn't investing in improved health worth it?

Alas it seems that improving our health by moving more frequently seems like such an easy intervention, but realistically, it's an almost impossible one to bring about.