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Tackling the Dangers of Workplace Inactivity

Researchers are using activity-monitoring technology to figure out how to keep employees healthier.
August 12, 2011

A growing body of evidence suggests that sedentary office workers and other inactive people are at a relatively high risk of dying early. Sedentary people have elevated levels of biomarkers linked to cardiovascular disease, including insulin, glucose, and triglycerides. And research in animals has shown that levels of an enzyme responsible for breaking down fat plummets when the animals are forced to be inactive.

Sit or stand: The height of this desk from Steelcase adjusts so that the user can sit or stand.

Intensive exercise doesn’t affect the fat-metabolizing enzyme, so even daily workouts won’t necessarily protect people who spend eight hours a day sitting at a desk.

While many employers have introduced wellness programs to encourage workers to exercise and lose weight, few have tried to figure out ways to make office work itself less sedentary. “For most people with indoor office jobs or doing lot of driving, work is really the biggest chunk of sedentary time during the day,” says Neville Owen, professor of health behavior at the University of Queensland, Australia. The average American, for example, spends about 10 hours a day sitting, and the problem is getting worse.

Several studies to quantify the health effects of office inactivity are now under way or in the planning stages. Owen and collaborators are about to begin a clinical study in Melbourne in which office workers are given adjustable desks that let them choose between sitting and standing throughout the day. These desks are growing in popularity, but because they cost about $1,000 each, employers will want to know if they really work.

Participants will wear accelerometers to measure activity and inclinometers that directly measure sitting time to determine whether the desks reduce the time spent sitting or at least break up sitting time. Researchers will also look at participants’ levels of glucose, insulin, and triglycerides to determine whether changes in their habits reduce these markers of cardiovascular disease. “We will also look at participants’ perception of their own energy levels,” says Owens.

Some companies are trying out existing consumer products to encourage activity in their workers. For example, Pegasystems, a software company headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gave its employees Fitbits, thumb-sized devices that detect wearers’ movements, as part of a broader wellness program.

“We have a population of technical people who are often just sitting at their computers, and we had seen in medical-claims data evidence that our employees in general were not physically active enough,” says Janice Barker, senior director of compensation and benefits for Pegasystems. “That was something we felt we could make efforts to solve.” As part of the program, teams of employees compete on how many steps they take over a given period.

Barker says the Fitbit has been very popular, with requests for it pouring in from employees in Russia, India, and China. “We’ve seen an incredible increase in activity levels,” she says. “I personally was someone who never got out of my chair. But when you have this Fitbit and see how little you move, it’s incredibly motivating.”

Another approach to the problem may be simply to make it more acceptable to walk around. Last November, when about 20 scientists, exercise physiologists, and ergonomics experts converged at Stanford to discuss the dangers of sitting, they were encouraged to perch on exercise balls, stand at café tables, and wander around during talks.

“We got a lot of interesting feedback, like ‘This was the first conference where I was still awake at 4 p.m.,’” says Ken Smith, a researcher at the Stanford Center on Longevity, which hosted the conference.

Smith and collaborators are working on a pilot project at a call center in California to implement suggestions that resulted from the conference. “We want to explore cultural changes in the workplace that make it OK to stand in a highly sedentary environment like a call center, where it might be frowned on to walk around, or not even possible,” he says. “Part of the study will be to look at the impact on productivity.”

Targeting inactivity on the job may prove easier to accomplish than getting people to exercise. “A lot of the workplace wellness is around discretionary exercising, putting in a gym, or encouraging people to incorporate more exercise into leisure time,” says Owen. “Some people will get involved, but a lot of them won’t. Workplace sitting is more integral, more structural. It largely has to do with workplace design and giving options for adjusting sitting and standing.”

Meanwhile, the most common advice from physiologists is to get up as much as possible: go get a drink, do a quick stretch, or walk over to see a colleague rather than sending an e-mail. But little research has been done on how effective these measures are. “Is there a difference between sitting for two hours versus sitting with a few minutes of breaks? I think the jury is still out,” says Stephen Intille, an associate professor at Northeastern University who is building new tools—inexpensive wearable accelerometers—to help scientists precisely measure sitting.  “More work needs to be done to fully understand whether or not breaking up sedentary behavior is going to make a big difference.”

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