Before the widespread use of technology, people were actively engaged in physical activities at work. For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a lamplighter would need to use long poles to manually light each of the town’s lamps at night and extinguish them when morning comes. As technology developed over time, the need for this type of manual labor disappeared and more desk-based jobs appeared which introduced sedentary behaviors such as sitting for a prolonged time, and thus people started to move less. The integration of these behaviors continued to increase during the past several decades and has become a lifestyle.
Much research reported a strong association between a sedentary lifestyle and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes mellitus, and cancer which are actually the leading cause of death worldwide. As one of the sedentary behaviors, prolonged sitting is also found to be a risk factor for the mortality rate attributable to these diseases as well as other diseases that have an indirect association with prolonged sitting. Despite these detrimental effects on health, a 2020 study found that people are still sitting too much, with variations in sitting time across countries, ranging up to 9.5 hours per day.
Rezende, L., et al. found that the life expectancy of an individual could be increased by up to 3 months on average by reducing sitting time. This benefit seems smaller compared to those gained by eliminating physical inactivity, obesity, and tobacco smoking. However, reducing sitting time might play an important role in promoting an active lifestyle, bridging sedentarism to higher physical activity levels.
Sit less, move more
The shift to working from home in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in working longer for many employees. According to a survey of 2,800 workers by Los Angeles-based staffing firm Robert Half, 45% of remote employees regularly worked more hours during the week than they did before and nearly 70% worked on the weekends. Feeling burdened by prolonged work, people found it difficult to allocate time for physical activity.
WHO released a physical activity guideline that delivered a salient message: “sit less and move more”. Based on this guideline, adults aged 18-64 years should accumulate at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity such as brisk walking or biking. They could also shorten the time by half if they practice vigorous-intensity physical activity such as jogging or swimming.
While it is important to follow these guidelines to achieve health benefits, physical activity doesn’t mean constant movement. Even a little bit of effort can come with health benefits. For example, grabbing a glass of water every hour during work can break up your sitting time.
Standing as an alternativeUnlike sitting, mortality rates decline at higher levels of standing. People who stood more than 8 hours per day had a significantly lower all-cause mortality risk than people standing for only 2 hours per day or less. Therefore, the standing may be a healthier alternative to prolonged sitting time.
In terms of energy expenditure, sitting burns only 80 calories per hour while standing could burn 88 calories per hour. The difference seems to be insignificant but standing helps blood sugar levels return to normal faster after a meal compared to sitting. This process is facilitated by the contraction of certain muscles in a standing position which triggers the production of substances that help use and store fats and sugars.
People can also stand while working by using a standing desk to incorporate more movement. However, it is also important to note that standing for a long time also has its side effects such as lower back and leg pain as well as fatigue. It is recommended to not stand for more than 2 hours continuously and to shift to sitting periodically.
As prolonged sitting time is associated with higher risk mortality, moving around during work helps employees reduce the risk and live longer. People with desk-based jobs could also use standing desks as an alternative to sitting. However, it is still recommended to do regular physical activity for a healthier life.