Sitting Disease: Fact, Fiction or Hype?
“Sitting Disease” is a term that has been used in news articles over the past few months. Even a year ago, the term “sitting disease” wasn’t in our common lexicon. However, that all started to change within the last year or so when there was a number of news articles about the results of studies showing negative effects of sitting. In addition, new products have come to market that provide lower cost solutions to sitting disease in the office setting. Ergotron, a company based in Eagan, MN, which has been on the forefront for developing sit to stand products released their “Workfit-S” and created the website, www.juststand.org, which emphasizes the effects of sitting. Hence, due to creative marketing around the results of the studies the term “sitting disease” came about.
As an ergonomist, one of the questions I frequently get from clients and even family and friends is, “Is sitting disease real?” Another common question that follows is, “Are sit-stand workstations required for everyone?” Both are good questions. Let’s start with the first one:
Is “Sitting Disease” Real?
I have two views on “sitting disease”. One is that yes, sitting hours upon hours each day, week, month and year is not good for ones’ health so it is a fact. On the other hand, “sitting disease” is part hype as well.
Let’s be honest, when we hear the word “sitting” combined with the term “disease” it gets our attention. It sensationalizes the sedentary issue and makes for a great marketing tool for products that address sit-stand workstations. The media has also played a part in hyping the term “sitting disease”. Consider the following article headlines:
Just reading those headlines can make a person paranoid of sitting or could make them totally tune out if they consider this another one of those health & wellness stories that is fact today but changes tomorrow, i.e. eggs very bad for you, now not so bad; High carb/low fat diet was great in the early 90s but now low carb, moderate fat and protein is the way to go. Sitting in and of itself is not a “disease”. It’s not a virus or bacteria. We can’t “catch” it from others. It’s not hereditary. So to call sitting a disease in my opinion is definitely hype. However the findings and implications of hours and hours of sitting are real and very much impact our health.
No one can argue that the health and wellness of our population has been declining when we consider the increased rates of obesity and diabetes over the past 20-30 years. When one compares our society from before the industrial revolution to afterwards we see we went from being on our feet, farming, and performing manual labor for almost every activity to one where machines started to replace manual tasks. Now compare that to today’s computers and technology. The majority of manual labor has been replaced by machines. We use computers in almost every work environment. We become a nation of “desk jockeys”—hitting keys and clicking mice while sitting hours on end at work. When we go home from work we sit in our car and once home we sit on our couch. If we added up all of the hours at home and work that a typical office worker, we probably find we sit a total of 12-16 hours/day!
So we’ve changed from calorie burning manual labor to very minimal calorie burning sedentary labor. While our lifestyles have changed, what we eat and how much we eat have also changed. At the turn of the 19th century there was very little, if any processed food. Today, processed food is everywhere. Processed food is convenient food. We can buy it in a grocery store, bring it home, pop it in the microwave and viola!, dinner is on the table. The obesity and diabetes epidemic that America has today can be at least partially attributed to our sedentary lifestyle and the fact that we consume more calories than our body needs.
So what do the studies show regarding sitting? Here are links to a few studies:
- Role of Low Energy Expenditure and Sitting in Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease
- Showed decrease activity of a metabolic enzyme with inactivity
- Showed the more a person spends sitting the greater risk of mortality
- Results suggested that long-term sedentary work may increase the risk of distal colon cancer and rectal cancer.
Here’s a summary of a few more from www.juststand.org (referenced 2/16/12):
- A January 2010 British Journal of Sports Medicine article suggests that people who sit for long periods of time have an increased risk of disease.
- An American Cancer Society study, published in the July 2010 American Journal of Epidemiology, of 120,000 adults suggests that the more people sit, the shorter their average life span. What’s more, the findings were independent of physical activity level such as with people who exercise outside of work.
- A 2010 University of Queensland, Australia study found that even when adults meet physical activity guidelines, sitting for prolonged periods can compromise metabolic health
So what does sitting do to your body? Prolonged sitting causes changes in our metabolism so sitting disease is part of what is known as Metabolic Syndrome. There is an enzyme, lipoprotein lipase which resides in the blood vessels that is essentially turned off with inactivity. This enzyme is responsible for metabolizing fats and sugars in the blood stream. Physical movement stimulates enzyme activity which in turn improves cholesterol and helps regulate blood sugar. Lack of movement lowers enzyme activity which in turn contributes to weight gain, diabetes and reduction of the good cholesterol, HDL. In the first study cited above the authors stated that “by experimentally reducing normal spontaneous standing and ambulatory time had a much greater effect on LPL regulation than adding vigorous exercise training on top of the normal level of nonexercise activity. Those studies also found that inactivity initiated unique cellular processes that were qualitatively different from the exercise responses.” In other words, standing, walking and fidgeting every hour (spontaneous movement) throughout the day seems to have a greater effect on lipoprotein lipase enzymes than exercising an hour per day but sitting the rest of the day.
Does Everyone Need A Sit-Stand Workstation?
Now onto answering the second question, “Does every office worker need a sit-stand workstation?” The short answer is “No”. As an ergonomist I’d love for every “desk jockey” to have a sit-stand workstation as movement is beneficial for health and also productivity reasons. Workers who stand for part of their day report feeling more alert, productive and focused, and less fatigue and discomfort (source: Ergotron, 2011, seven-week, 34-subject experiment with intervention and control groups conducted by HealthPartners in partnership with Ergotron). This benefits both the employee but employer. That being said, providing sit-stand workstations to everyone is not necessary, nor may it be financially possible. There are many options to achieve sit-stand workstations. The most common include:
- Having the whole desk move up and down
- Having a fixed height sitting desk and adding a product that allows the monitor, keyboard and mouse to move up and down (examples include Workfit-S and Kangaroo Desk)
- Having a fixed height standing desk and providing a stool task chair
There are pros and cons to each option. What is best depends upon the person, the tasks they perform and the equipment they use. Some of the sit-stand products can vary from a few hundred dollars to well over a thousand dollars per workstation. One the best things employers can do is to educate their staff on how to incorporate movement and standing while at their desk and allow them to take short breaks to get up and take a walk even if it is just to the water cooler and back. The purpose is to have regular activity, no matter how small, done frequently during the day.
Our sedentary lifestyle of sitting for long periods is not good for our health. It can lead to an early death. Regular activity, beyond specific exercise, such as standing, walking, raking, gardening, cleaning, etc. has health benefits.
Take A Ways:
- Providing sit-stand workstations for everyone is not required; however, incorporating activity into the work day is
- Sitting isn’t a “disease” per say but the effects of several hours of sitting per day is factually bad for your health
- Exercising for a period of time per day is good, but one metabolic enzyme is stimulated greater by spontaneous movements throughout the day
- Do stand, if you don’t have to sit
- Do walk, if you don’t have to stand in place
- Do it yourself manually, not with a machine (**of course, as long as you can do it without hurting yourself or others!)
Author: Jill Kelby, President/Owner of Kelby Ergo Design, LLC
©2012 Jill Kelby, KelbyErgoDesign, LLC