Evidence shows prolonged sitting carves years off life

By Carol McKinley Colorado Public News - Published: July 2, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Evidence suggests that people who sit for hours at a time have an increased potential of developing life-shortening diseases.

In an era when students and professionals increasingly are hunkering over their computer monitors for hours at a stretch, health officials and some Colorado employers are embracing a new concept: Just stand up. And let the workspace stand up, too.

"I think every kid at school should have a desk that allows them to stand up rather than sit," said James O. Hill, executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora. "I know (stand-up desks) cost money, but in the scheme of things, the benefit you're going to get in preventing disease would be well worth the cost."

Hill said employers more often are taking responsibility for getting workers out of their seats. "Awareness is higher than it's ever been," he said.

A recent study published in Archives of Internal Medicine by public health researchers in Australia found that prolonged sitting in front of a computer monitor - 11 hours or more - significantly increases the risk of dying earlier.

Another study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology determined that people who spend six hours sitting are 20 percent more likely to develop chronic diseases - including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and breast and colon cancer - than those who sit for half of that time. In another study, conducted over a 13-year period at Louisiana's Pennington Biomedical Research Center, scientists found that 54 percent of the people who sat all day long were more prone to fatal heart attacks.

Further research, detailed in the October 2010 British Journal of Sports Medicine, suggests that prolonged sitting results in adverse metabolic and health effects, "even if people meet the current recommendation of 30 minutes of physical activity on most days each week."

Increasingly, employees and their employers are adjusting their work habits, including routinely getting up and moving around - and installing desks that allow them to stand for at least a good part of the day. In Colorado, many companies have joined the movement for movement.

This fall, for example, the Denver Chamber of Commerce is replacing its stationary desks with moveable ones and getting rid of outdated straight-backed chairs to make way for rotating chairs with lumbar support.

On a recent outing to a merchant specializing in ergonomic workplace furniture, about a dozen Denver chamber employees - most of them in their early 30s - moved continuously around a conference desk in comfortable swivel chairs. In one corner, employee Lori Troge walked a slow steady pace while working on her computer at a treadmill desk. Another desk moves up and down on a hydraulic pump at the touch of a button so that no matter how tall or short, anyone can stand and work.

"We know that it is going to be expensive, but we really consider this an investment in our employees' long-term health," said Kate Horle, the organization's director of communications and marketing.

Other ergonomic-friendly furniture allows workers to use moveable computer pads that allow them to sit in different positions over their laptops. Employees said they are looking forward to the new equipment - and a new way of working.

"I spend 90 percent of my time sitting down ... when I get home, I'm more exhausted than if I had a hard workout," accountant Ronnika Smith said.

Hill, of the Anschutz Health and Wellness center, says he recently has consulted with several other Colorado companies about improving employee productivity through exercise.

"More and more, management is adopting a new attitude that, 'If you work here, you have to take care of yourself,'" he said.

Full Contact, a Denver-based digital contact management company, last month invested $1,000 each for 32 hydraulic desks for employees.

"Our old desks and card tables weren't popular," CEO Bart Lorfung said. "I surveyed the company and asked everyone if they were really going to use (the new desks), and people were dying for them. I'm looking around the room and half of my employees are standing up. They sit and stand depending on how they feel and some people actually stand all day long."

However, Hill said special equipment isn't always required to improve better habits at work - or at home. The simple act of circling the office twice to get a cup of coffee or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can add months to a lifetime, he said. At home, simply walking the dog can help get the blood flowing.

"Research suggests that maybe there's something we can do to mitigate the negative impacts of sitting," he said. "Break it up every hour. Get up and take five minutes to move around."

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