In 2013 the LA Times quoted Dr. Anup Kanodia serving up the catchphrase, “Sitting is the new smoking.” Ever since, you’d have to be an epidemiologist to separate the fact from hype. And you and I are no epidemiologists.
Personally, I’ve resisted the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” except to use it mockingly. In equating sitting and smoking we diminish the 50 years of investigation, social change, and sacrifice committed to understanding and addressing an insidious chemical dependency — tobacco use — that remains the world’s leading preventable cause of death.
But I get it. Prolonged sitting puts us at risk for future disease and premature death, inducing harm that can’t be undone even by regular exercise. The research suggests that interrupting prolonged periods of sitting is essential to health.
No one is surprised to hear that lack of physical activity is a health risk factor. The unique finding in the sitting research is that there is something deadly specifically in the act of prolonged sitting — the position itself — and that standing (or breaking up periods of sitting with standing) has health benefits. The recommendation from a landmark study in 2010 was:
Public health messages should include both being physically active and reducing time spent sitting.
A group of international experts commissioned by Public Health England recently obliged, publishing a consensus statement that recommends:
seated-based work should be regularly broken up with standing-based work, the use of sit–stand desks, or the taking of short active standing breaks.
For starters, the panel advised sedentary workers to accumulate two hours of standing or light activity (such as the type of low-speed walking you do on treadmill workstations, which usually have top speeds of 2.0 mph).
Sit-stand workstation. Photo: John M
The 2010 study and others like it catapulted the popularity of standing workstations, which already were on the rise as a potential solution to ergonomic back pain. In my experience, however, enthusiasm for standing workstations was quickly eclipsed by a preference for sit-stand workstations, which offer workers the option to change position at will.
“Sitting Is No Worse Than Standing”
In recent weeks, however, we’ve seen a slew of studies that offered new perspectives — some refuting previous research about standing, some expanding on it:
First: An analysis of the Whitehall II study data (which I’ve described elsewhere) determined that sitting is no worse than standing. Reporting in the International Journal of Epidemiology in October 2015, the researchers found no association between sitting time and mortality. Their recommendation:
be cautious about placing emphasis on sitting behaviour as a risk factor for mortality
Next… Hold the phone. Acknowledging that there’s “insufficient evidence specifically focusing on the public health and medical implications of increasing daily standing,” researchers set out to identify the relationship between standing, metabolic syndrome (a cluster of risk factors), and obesity. They found that people who spend 25% of their day standing are less likely to be obese compared to more sedentary counterparts.
The plot thickens: Much of the earlier research was based on subjects’ total time spent standing or sitting. An employer may well question why they should invest in a sit-stand workstation if Joe-The-Knowledge-Worker goes home and spends hours on the couch at home. Why not encourage people to stand while watching TV or eating? Is the idea of a standing dining room table or a raised counter in front of the TV really so far-fetched?
Sitting at Home Is the New Sitting at Work
Along comes a small study that evaluated the outcomes of workers outfitted with sit-stand workstations. Data was collected via self-report and via instruments that monitored the workers’ position. The conclusion: Workers using sit-stand workstations spent significantly less time sitting at work…but significantly more time sitting while they were home. (Interestingly, previous work showed that workers with sit-stand workstations spend more time standing at work, but was not able to correlate this difference to health outcomes.)
That employees with sit-stands spend more time sitting at home is entirely plausible. Consider our tendency to overcompensate for a workout by overeating afterward. Another explanation may be that people standing more during the day experience fatigue that leads them to sit more at home.
Speaking of fatigue from standing, read on…
Standing Is Linked to Problems with Pain, Cardio Health, Pregnancy
For me, an irony of our newfound penchant for standing is the long and hard-fought battle workers previously waged to sit more. This came to my attention when I researched my blog post about the workers who ultimately perished in the Triangle factory fire. Seamstress jobs at the Triangle factory were considered cushy at the time, because the workers sat all day, in contrast to the more common manufacturing jobs in which workers toiled on their feet for hours on end.
The UK’s Hazard Magazine, which covers health and safety issues — from a decidedly pro-labor perspective — chronicles the history of European workers seeking the right to sit at work. But let’s not dismiss the right to sit as a relic of European history… In 2014, AT&T Mobility settled a complaint by workers and agreed to redesign stores with “learning tables” that gave retail staff the option to sit if customers also chose to do so. (The settlement also required AT&T to pay approximately $250 per eligible retail employee.) In 2007, Safeway — self-anointed prophet of all that is righteous about employee wellness — was unmoved when a customer took sympathy and gifted stools to cashiers.
Prolonged standing was identified as an epidemic health risk long before cigarette packages even existed to put warnings on. In the 17th century, Bernardino Ramazzini, the “father of occupational medicine,” called for shorter periods of standing and more frequent breaks during work.
A recent analysis confirmed that prolonged standing at work increases risk of low back pain, fatigue, cardiovascular problems, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Most modern-day experts favor a mix of sitting and standing rather than prolonged periods of either.
At this point, the body of evidence remains a labyrinth, with important variables — sitting at work vs. away from work; the role of standing vs. physical activity — not fully teased out. In the interim, we need to be wary of the “sitting is the new smoking” hype and learn more about the problem and the solutions.
In my opinion, pending further research, sit-stand workstations are a reasonable solution to attenuate problems associated with prolonged sitting at workstation desks. They give the worker more control over the work, which, all things being equal, is always a good thing for employee well-being.
I also have come around to supporting treadmill workstations, though I sacrifice a piece of my soul in doing so. Some physical activity is better than no physical activity, just as shifting positions is better than prolonged sitting or standing. But treadmill workstations seem just a step away from succumbing entirely to absurdity and putting workers in a hamster wheel.
There’s another approach that may be more sensible, well articulated in the quasi-satirical New Republic piece, “Screw Your Standing Desk!”
Of course the long, stationary workdays of most Americans are unhealthy. The solution should not be to sit less, but to work less. If sitting is as bad as the doctors say—and I’m sure it is!—then why not prescribe longer lunch breaks, shorter hours, and more vacation? You can still be chained to a standing desk.
For further reading:
Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation — Harvard Business Review article by Nilofer Merchant
Taking A Stand at Work — Wall Street Journal interview with Dr. Anup Kanodia
Calorie Burner: How Much Better is Standing Up than Sitting? — BBC