Office workers told to stand or risk health

Sitting for long periods has an 'exponentially' bad effect on health. Picture: Getty
Sitting for long periods has an 'exponentially' bad effect on health. Picture: Getty
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OFFICE workers should be on their feet for a minimum of two hours a day during working hours, according to the first official UK guidance.

The rise in the sedentary office culture has major health implications for workers such as an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression and back pain, a study published today in the British Journal of Sport Medicine has found.

Gavin Hastings

Prolonged sitting is defined as anything over 30 minutes

Experts revealed there is increasing evidence that physically active people can still be at risk if they spend prolonged periods seated at work, and called for the daily quota to eventually be raised to four hours a day, breaking up prolonged periods of sitting with the use of sit-stand desks, standing-based work and regular walkabouts.

Adjustable sit-stand work stations have soared in popularity in Sweden and Norway, as data from the Furniture Industry Research Association estimates that 90 per cent of Scandinavian office workers have access to sit-stand workstations, compared to one per cent in the UK.

Professor John Buckley, lead author from Chester University’s Institute of Medicine, said: “For those working in offices, 65 to 75 per cent of their working hours are spent sitting, of which more than 50 per cent of this is accumulated in prolonged periods of sustained sitting.

“The evidence is clearly emerging that a first behavioural step could be simply to get people standing and moving more frequently as part of their working day.”

The guidance was drawn up by a panel of international experts, at the behest of Public Health England and Active Working CIC (community interest company).

As well as encouraging staff to embrace other healthy activities, such as cutting down drinking and smoking and eating a nutritious diet, the guidelines recommend employers should warn their workers about the potential dangers of too much time spent sitting down, either at work or at home.

Businesses are starting to take up the idea, such as pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson which has invested in new workstations for its Inverness-based operation. Consultancy firm EY (formerly Ernst and Young) is helping to develop an “active innovation working centre” aimed at reducing sedentary time in the office.

Prof Buckley added: “While longer-term intervention studies are required, the level of consistent evidence accumulated to date, and the public health context of rising chronic diseases, suggest initial guidelines are 

The study was also supported by Gavin Bradley, founding director of the Get Britain Standing campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the dangers of prolonged sedentary periods.

Bradley, who also runs the organisation Active Working, said: “For me the jaw-dropping moment was when I saw there was evidence that problems could not just be caused by obesity, but by being sedentary even for a few hours.

“I am a triathlete but I work in a fairly sedentary fashion and prolonged sitting can be defined as anything over 30 minutes.”

There is not enough evidence to quantify how long a period of sitting down would be bad for your health, warned Juliet Harvey, researcher in the School of Health and Life Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Ms Harvey, who also works as a physiotherapist, said: “The key is changing posture frequently in the day and avoiding long periods of either sitting or standing still – thus the pattern of accumulation of sedentary/non-sedentary time is just as important as total time spent sitting.

“Some researchers suggest breaking sitting every 20 to 30 minutes is most beneficial, as over two hours of sitting seems to have an exponential negative effect.

“Hopefully, changing occupation sitting habits in working age will have an effect on future generations on retirement, therefore leading to more successful ageing.”

The Scottish Government is keen to improve levels of physical activity in workplaces, said Jamie Hepburn, minister for sport, health improvement and mental health.

MSP Mr Hepburn said: “We support workplaces to promote ways in which staff can be more active during their working day. Employers and employees across Scotland are offered information and advice in a number of ways.”