How to Reduce Sitting Time at Work

For health research watchers, 2013 will probably be remembered as the year that the negative effects of excess sitting, even for daily exercisers, gained widespread notice. Or, as we put it in our September 2013 issue of Runner’s World, sitting is the new smoking.

A new study takes the next step in addressing the problem by looking at specific ways to increase activity at otherwise sedentary jobs. The study is especially valuable because it acknowledges that there’s great variation among office workers’ set-ups, with some having flexibility in their schedules and others working in more controlled settings.

Australian researchers recruited three government organisations for the study: Organisation 1, a data processing centre where workers could manage their own time and work flow; Organisation 2, a call centre with little autonomy and flexibility in the daily schedule; and Organisation 3, a data processing centre where work hours and break times were strictly controlled. Three different interventions were tried at each organisation: an active work desk with a treadmill or biking desk that provided computer and phone access; strategies to promote light or moderate activity before and after work and taking active breaks during work; and an approach that focused on active sitting and moving around while sitting as well as breaking up computer tasks.

As it turned out, none of the three interventions was clearly better than the others. Doing whatever is possible in your set-up, in other words, is better than doing nothing. Overall, there was a significant 1.7% reduction in sedentary time during work hours (about an 8-minute reduction) and a 1.5% increase in light activity during work hours (about a 7-minute increase). It is not yet clear if the magnitude of change found in this study is sufficient to reduce the health risks associated with sedentary time.

There were greater reductions in sedentary time and greater increased in active time in Organisation 1, where workers the greatest flexibility in their schedules; all the interventions were more successful in that organisation.

The authors note that recognition of musculoskeletal problems associated with prolonged computer work led to ergonomic guidelines in the late 20th century. Now, they say, it’s time to implement guidelines about reducing sedentary behaviour to help workers lower their risk of heart disease, diabetes and other metabolic conditions associated with excess sitting.

The study was published in the online journal PLoS One.

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