Ask an Expert: Is sitting down on the job making you sick?

Long periods of sitting down on the job can lead to increased health risks that may not be reduced by routine physical exercise. Dr. Maureen Ashe, researcher at the VCH Research Institute, has some tips on moving your way to better health at work.

Q:  What is sedentary behaviour?
A:  According to the Sedentary Behaviour Network, sedentary behaviour is “any waking behaviour characterized by an energy expenditure ≤1.5 METs while in a sitting or reclining posture.” It includes activities such as sitting, screen time (TV, computer), and driving in a car. Sedentary behaviour is different from physical inactivity, which is when a person does not meet recommended guidelines for weekly physical activity (150 minutes/week of moderate to vigorous physical activity). 1

Q:  Many office-based jobs include prolonged sitting. How much is too much sitting?
A:  The short answer is that we still do not know how much is too much sitting. Although common sense dictates there can be negative health consequences if you have a long commute to and from work, eight hours of sitting in front of a computer and more hours of screen time before bed. At the present time, there are no sedentary behaviour guidelines for adults and older adults. However, for children and youth, Canadian Guidelines recommend “limiting recreational screen time to no more than 2 hours per day” and “limiting sedentary (motorized) transport, extended sitting time, and time spent indoors throughout the day.”2

Q:  How is too much sitting affecting my health? What is the connection between health and sedentary behaviour?
A:  We are only now fully realizing the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle on our health. Emerging evidence from Australia and Canada highlight that even if a person meets the recommended 150 minutes/week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, but spends the rest of the day sitting, there are negative health consequences. Research shows the benefits of breaking up prolonged sitting3 by simply standing up or taking a short walk.

Q:  Time and space is limited at work, what can I do to limit sitting?
A:  The good news is that there are small changes that you can make to 'sit less to move more'. If you can, set a timer on your computer or smartphone to remind yourself to stand up and move around every 45-60 minutes. You can also have standing meetings, or have a meeting on the go — a 'walk and talk'. Try to do some of your work standing up, for example, try to stand up when taking phone calls.

Q:  How can I keep moving around the office?
A:  To move more at the office, put your printer further away from your desk. If appropriate, go and talk to a colleague rather than send an email. If possible, take the stairs or use the washroom on a different floor. Use active transportation, such as walking or cycling, to get to work. If this is not an option, try using public transportation to commute to work. Taking the bus is another way to add steps to your day.

Q: What about a standing desk? Would a standing position help my muscle and joint problems?
A: Standing desks are one way to encourage more activity at work, and in particular, they can be very helpful to break up prolonged sitting. However, there are at least two considerations before you decide to buy a standing desk. First, too much standing could be as problematic as too much sitting. For example, people who spend long periods of their work day standing can have foot and back pain. Therefore, if you decide to purchase a standing desk, remember to vary your body position throughout the day, so you are not just sitting or standing for long periods of time. Second, if you decide to switch to a standing desk, remember not to stand up the entire day all at once. Think of it like an exercise program, or a new pair of shoes, where you have to gradually get used to prolonged periods of standing time.

Having a sedentary job is not an excuse – move your way to better health before work, during your work day and after!



1 Sedentary Behaviour Research Network. Letter to the editor: standardized use of the terms "sedentary" and "sedentary behaviours". Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 2012; 37(3): 540-2.
2 Tremblay MS, Leblanc AG, Janssen I, et al. Canadian sedentary behaviour guidelines for children and youth. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 2011; 36(1): 59-64; 5-71.
3 Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Salmon J, et al. Breaks in sedentary time: beneficial associations with metabolic risk. Diabetes Care 2008; 31(4): 661-6.



Maureen is also a physiotherapist and a core investigator at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility in Vancouver, BC. Her research interests include investigating physical activity and sedentary behaviour patterns across different populations, such as older adults after hip fracture, older adults who reside in Assisted Living communities, and middle-age adults at or near retirement. Her work also includes testing interventions that aim to improve or maintain mobility across these populations. Maureen has a special interest in understanding the contributing role of the built and social environments in fostering positive lifestyle behaviours.


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