The health benefits of exercise are well established, as are the risks associated with not being active. The modern workplace, however, often involves sitting for long periods of time. So what do most people do when their workday is over? Do they balance out all that sitting at work by being more active in their free time? Since research on this issue is sparse, a team of British researchers decided to investigate further. Their study, Office Workers’ Objectively Measured Sedentary Behavior and Physical Activity During and Outside Working Hours, was published in the March 2014 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The results are sobering. In short, the office workplace was found to be primarily sedentary and, despite the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle (for example Type II diabetes, weight gain, cancer and cardiovascular disease), workers did not compensate by being more active during their leisure time.
Over the course of a typical week (Monday to Friday at work, weekends off), data was collected on the physical activity of a group of 170 office workers living in the English Midlands. Each was required to wear an ActiGraph accelerometer that recorded data at one-minute intervals. Sedentary was identified at less than 100 counts per minute, light physical activity (e.g., slow walking) was identified at 100-1951 counts per minute and moderately vigorous physical activity (MVPA -- e.g. brisk walking) was identified at greater than 1952 counts per minute.
The first prong of the study, to determine the pattern and duration of sedentary behavior during both working and nonworking hours, entailed looking at the time spent by each participant in each activity both on a minute-by-minute basis, and also as a proportion of each day. The second prong of the study, to determine if workers compensated for time spent sitting at work by being more active during nonworking hours, was accomplished by dividing the participants into three tertiles. Tertile 1 (numbering 55 participants) spent the least time sedentary at work (less than 68% of working hours); Tertile 2 (numbering 54 participants) spent a medium time sedentary at work (68 – 74%) while Tertile 3 (numbering 61 participants) spent the greatest time sedentary at work (over 75%).
Charting the Workday
The study showed that for all groups, most sedentary behavior on workdays was accumulated between 9 am and 5 pm. Overall, up to 71% of working hours were sedentary. There was a “small dip” in such behavior around lunchtime and immediately after work, followed by a steady increase as the evening progressed. The data collected indicated that sedentary behavior was the “mirror image” of light physical activity, suggesting that such light activity may offset sedentary behavior.
The data collected indicated that from morning until mid-afternoon (8 am – 4 pm) the proportion of sedentary behavior to light physical activity was “relatively equal” for those who spent the least time sitting at work. After 4 pm, sedentary behavior increased and light physical activity decreased. Throughout the course of the day in its entirety, the time spent in sedentary behavior versus light activity was 54% to 41% for this group. For those moderately sedentary at work, the data indicated a shift in activity between sedentary and light activity after 1 pm; however, sedentary behavior predominated throughout the day (61% to 36%). Finally, and importantly, those most sedentary at work were also most sedentary outside work (64% sedentary to 31% light activity).
Pulling it all Together
According to the results of this study, office workers spent more time in sedentary behavior on working than on non-working days (68% and 60% respectively). More time was spent on light intensity activity on nonworking days than on working days (36% and 28% respectively). Furthermore, compared to other groups, the results indicated those who spent the least time sitting at work spent “significantly” less time sitting in leisure time. Conversely, those who were most sedentary at work were most sedentary outside work. Interestingly, those who were most active were older (mean age 46) than those with moderate (mean age 38) to high (mean age 36) sedentary behavior. The study concludes that “[g]iven the workplace is the major contributor to total daily sedentary time on workdays, worksite interventions designed to reduce, or break up, sedentary behavior are urgently needed in UK office workers.” It suggested the following:
> Use of pooled printers and copiers
> Centrally placed water coolers
> Restricting email and telephone communications for employees in the same building
> Using lunchtime to promote light physical activity
Further research into this area may result in additional beneficial changes to the workplace. The study noted, for example, that Swedish and Australian researchers are investigating the efficacy of sit-to-stand stations for reducing sedentary time at work. As more attention is focused on this important health issue, it is anticipated that more options will likely become available.
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Risk Management Tips: Rebecca Shafer, President of Amaxx Risk Solutions, Inc. and author of Your Ultimate Guide to Mastering Workers’ Comp Costs, states that from a risk management perspective, wellness programs promote good health by offering opportunities for healthier behaviors. Several examples include:
> Out of office (or out of cubicle) breaks are encouraged or “suggested”.
> Stairwells are clean, attractive and carpeted so workers can walk rather than take the elevator.
> Stairwells, sidewalks and trails inside and outside can have marked distances to promote goal setting. For example, climbing 10 flights of stairs equals 1/4 mile, etc.
> Indoor and outdoor exercise equipment and stretching areas can be used for brief periods of time throughout the day.
> Personal garden spaces are placed directly adjacent to the office for employees to do a few minutes of gardening or pulling weeds during the day.
> Attractive, shaded gathering locations for employees are provided. Conversely, some work sites have outdoor patios for only smokers.
According to Ms. Shafer, “With the advent of cubicles instead of closed-door offices, people can no longer pace while talking on the phone or dictate on handheld devices without interrupting co-workers. Providing cord-free telephones and enclosed spaces would allow employees to conduct phone calls away from desks.” Shafer also notes that computers, which easily convert from sitting to standing positions to allow workers to change positions frequently, are gaining attention.
The study had some self-acknowledged limitations. These included the type of measuring device used (the ActiGraph could not distinguish between sitting and standing and therefore some time could have been misclassified), the use of 100 or less counts per minute to denote sedentary behavior (not a universally accepted marker) and the fact that actual working hours were not recorded (9 – 5 was used based on the researchers’ knowledge of standard working hours in the applicable organizations). Additionally, since this was a cross-sectional rather than a longitudinal study, no conclusions could be drawn on causality. In other words, it wasn’t possible to make any determinations on whether being sedentary at work causes one to be more sedentary outside work. The study suggests that further research with a larger sample to explore sedentary patterns across age groups, education and employment could be helpful in promoting the development of tailored solutions to offset sedentary behavior.
A Final Word
Viewed through the lens of potential health implications, the findings that the workplace is a significant source of sedentary behavior, and that those who are sedentary for most of their working day do not compensate by becoming more active during their free time, is noteworthy. The study itself concludes that “[g]iven the high volume of sedentary behavior seen in this study, and others, workplace interventions are urgently needed to reduce sedentary time in adults to reduce the risk of numerous chronic diseases associated with sedentary behavior. “ Whether changes are made “urgently” or not remains to be seen. However, as employee wellness programs become more prevalent, simple steps taken to encourage workers to be more active at work, may go a long way towards promoting wellness within the workforce.
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