People with desk jobs should be encouraged to stand up and move about for at least two hours daily during working hours, according to new guidelines issued Monday to employers in the United Kingdom.
Four hours of standing should be the ultimate goal, the guidelines add.
The reason: Sitting for long periods is associated with poorer health, including an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancers. And that’s true even when people engage in some kind of vigorous exercise at other times of the day.
In other words, prolonged sitting appears to be a health risk factor all by itself.
In addition, some research has shown that workplaces that promote standing and moving about have higher productivity and efficiency. They also tend to have employees who express feeling a greater sense of collaboration with their coworkers.
How can desk workers get up on their feet more? Through sit-stand adjustable workstations and by promoting standing and/or walking breaks, according to the guidelines.
Too much sitting time
The guidelines were compiled by a panel of international experts at the request of Public Health England, a governmental agency, and Active Working, one of the U.K.’s many “community interest companies,” which are private companies that are set up with the explicit purpose of doing public good.
According to background information in the guidelines, British adults spend, on average, 60 percent of their waking hours, whether or not they are at work, engaged in sedentary behavior (defined simply as “time spent sitting”). That’s similar to the percentage of time American adults are sedentary each day.
“For those working in offices, 65–75% of their working hours are spent sitting, of which more than 50% of this is accumulated in prolonged periods of sustained sitting,” write the experts.
Thus, getting desk workers up and moving about would be an important first step toward increasing their overall physical activity — and improving their health, the experts add.
Here are the guidelines’ key recommendations:
- Aim to spend at least two hours during working hours standing or engaged in light activity (light walking). Gradually increase this “non-sitting” time to four hours daily.
- Break up seated work with standing work. Desks that can be adjusted for both positions are highly recommended.
- Avoid long stretches of “static” standing, as it may be as harmful as prolonged sitting. Also, alter your posture while moving about to reduce any risk of developing muscle pain. The kind of standing and walking recommended to desk workers has not been found, however, to be associated with low back or neck pain. In fact, it’s been found to reduce the risk of such pain.
- Some workers may find standing at a desk fatiguing. They may need to rest (yes, by sitting). If the discomfort persists, they should seek appropriate medical advice.
- Employers should explain to their workers that avoiding prolonged sitting is an important healthful behavior, along with eating a nutritious diet, reducing stress, reducing alcohol and not smoking
The authors of the new guidelines based their recommendations on the best available evidence, which, unfortunately, comes mostly from observational studies. As the experts themselves acknowledge, such studies cannot show cause and effect.
Some interventional studies (ones in which previously sedentary workers were assigned to ‘standing’ desks or given other means to move about more) were also included in the review, but these studies tended to follow people for only short periods of time.
Despite the limitations in the evidence, the experts decided it was appropriate to make their recommendations now.
“While longer term intervention studies are required, the level of consistent evidence accumulated to date, and the public health context of rising chronic disease, suggest initial guidelines are justified,” they write.