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Five ways to avoid “sitting disease” and stay healthy at work

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Sedentary behaviour is a health and productivity issue that affects employers and employees alike, and as a result, people are becoming less healthy from something as seemingly benign as – doing nothing. Some call it “sitting disease”.

These days it’s not uncommon for a person to spend over half their waking day sedentary – that’s close to nine hours. Consequently, an alarming upswing in the rate of non-infectious diseases has caught the attention of health authorities the world over. Sitting disease has been positively linked to a higher incidence of Type 2 Diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, cancer and even premature mortality. 

So what can we do to minimise the risks? Of course the easy answer is prevention, but what you need to know is what can be done now.

1) Get the facts

Before doing anything, it helps to understand why sitting disease has become such a problem for modern workers. These days, we are sedentary at times when our ancestors would have been engaged in low-level energy activities. In order to compensate for this inactivity we have tried to get in the recommended 150 minutes of exercise each week. 

It turns out that all physical activity is not equal. We need to pursue two types of physical activity: low level, or “non-exercise” activity and moderate to vigorous physical activity, commonly known as “exercise”. 

2) Get on your feet

The simplest way to reduce your sitting time in the office is to stand up. You can easily alternate between sitting and standing by assigning certain tasks to one posture or another. For example, when the phone rings, take the call standing. With this strategy you don’t need any special equipment but if you do decide to use equipment such as a sit-stand desk, establish a routine of spending about 30 minutes in each posture. 

At the end of an eight-hour day you will have reduced your sitting time by about four hours and switched postures about 16 times. Research shows that even small amounts of low-level activity can have a big impact on health and performance.

3) Get switched-on

Many people wouldn’t even think of sitting as an activity that we make the choice to do – it’s so engrained in our workplace routines. Just like a cup of tea first thing in the morning, we come to work, sit at our desks and hardly move save to put the kettle on or go to a meeting and sit back down. 

Wellbeing experts advise that when you start standing, aim to start in small regular intervals, rather than forcing yourself to stand all day for the first day. The aim should be to get to the point where you can spend half of your working day standing within four weeks.

This can be accomplished with a gradually increasing schedule of standing from 10 minutes per hour in Week 1, to 20 minutes each hour in Week 2 and finally 30 minutes per hour by Week 3. If you experience fatigue or discomfort, ease off a bit. Remember, this is a culture change. 

4) Get over it

Once you get over the initial novelty of standing in a sea of sitters, it becomes part of your daily routine, and like sitting, you don’t even think about it. In today’s knowledge economy, employers are starting to wake up to the requirements of healthier, happier employees. A forward thinking business needs to look after and encourage its staff. 

If there is a tendency towards reverting to a sedentary work style, using tools like the alerts on the Apple Watch, software for your computer, or even enlisting the support of those around you, will help you maintain the healthy habits or changing postures often throughout the day. 

5) Get more done

There is a strong link between productivity and being more mobile. Productivity not only benefits employers, but employees too as more tasks are completed to a better quality within the working day, reducing workplace stress. 

Studies show that there is at least an 18 per cent increase in productivity with investment in ergonomic furniture. And certainly, if workers feel better, they continue working, versus breaks for symptom relief that take them away from their work. After all, happy, healthy employees are both more productive and loyal.

Carrie Schmitz is ergonomics and research manager at Ergotron.

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