You might stand up and do a few stretches when you work from home, but would you sink into a lunge at the office? Genevieve Healy wouldn’t hesitate – but that’s because her own job involves changing workplace culture to reduce sitting.
“In meetings I’ll alternate sitting and standing, and with meetings of just one or two people, I’ll make it a walking meeting. I do emails standing up – a sit-stand desk makes it easy to change position – and I might do calf raises while I’m standing,” says Healy, lead researcher of BeUpstanding, a free program based at the University of Queensland to help organisations nudge deskbound staff into sitting less.
As risky activities go, sitting seems tame compared to, say, perching on scaffolding, but it’s earned a place on Safe Work Australia’s list of workplace hazards – along with asbestos exposure and coal dust. Too much uninterrupted sitting is now linked to a list of problems: a greater risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, lower back pain, depression and even lower bone density.
In a perfect world, our working days would involve no more than five hours sitting, we’d all have a sit-stand desk, there’d be more reasons to move – like using printers located away from our desks – and we’d prioritise a walk at lunchtime, says Professor David Dunstan, Head of the Baker-Deakin Department of Lifestyle and Diabetes in Melbourne.
“Standing doesn’t deliver the same benefits as moving does but it’s an improvement. The advantage over sitting is that it increases blood flow and engages postural muscles that keep us upright – these muscles aren’t switched on when we sit,” he says.
“Changing posture throughout the day is essential for preventing musculo-skeletal problems including back pain,” explains Dunstan who sets a timer prodding him to stand up and move every 30 minutes. “I used to get odd looks in meetings when I stood up and moved around but I don’t any more. In meetings at the Baker Institute and Deakin University we announce at the start that everyone should feel free to get up and move.”
So how far have Australia’s workplaces come in reducing uninterrupted sitting?
“We’re making some progress. Sit-stand desks are generally standard where I work, and organisations that are renovating or building new offices increasingly include height adjustable desks, “he says. “But we still have a way to go compared to countries like Denmark and Finland where offices are more conducive to movement.”
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