Why Sitting Is The New Smoking

Why Sitting Is The New Smoking

The chances are you’re reading this at work, sat at your desk, staring at your PC screen, laptop or tablet.  If so, you could be falling foul of what the medical professionals are dubbing the major public health problem of the beginning of the 21st Century:  lack of physical activity.

The traditional office environment – a place where many of us can spend up to 10 hours sat at our desks – may well be the single biggest contributing factor to an early grave.   The latest evidence, presented by www.getbritainstanding.org, makes for pretty scary reading:

  1. Heart: Prolonged sitting has been linked to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol and people who sit >8 hours per day are more than twice more likely to have cardiovascular disease than those sitting less than 4 hours. Irrespective of how physically active a person is.
  2. Cancer:  A 2011 study found that prolonged sitting could be responsible for as much as 49,000 cases of breast cancer and 43,000 (1,800 cases) could also be related to excessive sitting.
  3. Obesity:  After 90 minutes of sitting your metabolism shuts down and the body’s cells become less responsive to insulin and muscles release lower levels of the enzyme which burn cholesterol (lipoprotein lipase).
  4. Diabetes: Cells in idle muscles don’t respond as readily to insulin, so the pancreas produces more and more which can lead to other diseases
  5. Muscle Degeneration:  When you stand you use your abdominal muscles to keep you upright. However, excessive sitting leads to tight back muscles and soft abdominals which lead to bad posture which can exaggerate the spine’s natural arch (a condition called hyper lordosis or swayback).

This is just the start.  High blood, pressure, back and neck pain, depression and even dementia have all been linked to physical inactivity and excessive sitting.

Dr Mike Loosemore, from University College Hospital, London, believes active individuals reduce their risk of heart disease by 40% against their inactive counterparts.  High blood pressure can be lessened by almost 50%, the risk of recurrent breast cancer by almost 50% whilst the likelihood of colon cancer goes down by over 60%.

So what defines an ‘active individual?  The UK government’s recommendation that adults in the UK complete 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week to help achieve the above gains.  But as Dr Loosemore notes, “when adults were monitored, barely 7% of men and 4% of women were carrying out enough activity to fulfil them.”

Gavin Bradley, a Director at Get Britain Standing, writing in Workplace Insight goes even further than this: “Multiple research shows that increased exercise for an hour or so per day can’t undo the negative effects of sitting for eight hours, any more than running a mile can’t erase the damage caused by a smoking habit”.

So if bolting on an hour of exercise when we get home from work isn’t going to help, what’s the solution to prevent ourselves heading to an early grave?

Gavin Bradley is very clear on what needs to be done: “The primary focus has to be reducing our sitting time – especially at work.  The sit-stand desk, which enables your workstation to go up and down, is the optimal solution.  By mixing up your time at the desk between sitting and standing, you make huge leaps forward to improving your wellness in the workplace, whilst increasing productivity too”.

Whilst Britain languishes with one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, it should come as no surprise that our Scandinavian cousins lead the way when it comes to tackling the problem of physical inactivity.   Bradley continues: “Throughout Scandinavia, over 80% of office workers have sit-stand desks.  In the UK, the figure is less than 1%.”

On the occasions when we have no choice but to sit down at work, the Scandinavians have also been at the forefront of workplace ergonomics.  Scandinavian Business Seating is a global leader in ergonomic task seating, through their brands RH and HAG.  Jorgen Josefsson, MD says:  Long days in a demanding job should be rewarded with a comfortable seat. Our chairs are designed to follow the body’s slightest movement, facilitate blood circulation and breathing. The result is chairs that lead to better performance, fewer illness-related absences and increased productivity. Everyone with a RH chair contributes actively to the company’s performance. How do you put a value on that?”

Whilst Britain may have been slow on the uptake, both manufacturers and end-user businesses are starting to heed the message.  Up until recently, stand-sit desks were only available from specialist ergonomic equipment dealers such as Posturite.  They would often be specified by a DSE (Display Screen Equipment) assessor or a doctor, on a reactive basis, to individuals who already had chronic back ache or neck pains.  Even if an employer was enough of a visionary to roll out stand-sit desks for every user to prevent illnesses from developing before they surface, the cost was too prohibitive.

Thankfully, things are starting to change.  Britain’s leading office furniture manufacturers now have height adjustable stand-sit desks featuring in their standard ranges.  One such company is Mobili Office, a respected manufacturer and designer of office furniture in Skipton, North Yorkshire.  Alastair Jewsbury, Senior Designer, said: “ We’ve been aware of the need for stand-sit desks for several years and have duly featured them in our portfolio, but sometimes you have to wait for the mass market to  catch up.  It seems as though that time has arrived”.

Mobili’s new product portfolio for 2014 includes a brand new range called ‘Move’.

In their normal configuration, Move desks look like any other – standard rectangular bench desks, with shared legs and beams and screens intersecting down the middle.  When you begin to adjust the settings, you begin to see how much engineering and innovation goes into the manufacturing process.  Jewsbury remarks:  “The Move range is one of the first which addresses the need to reduce sitting time in the workplace without compromising on the aesthetics of the desk pod.  Central screens have always caused a headache for product designers.  As they are shared between face to face users, if one desk goes up, the screen will go with it, leaving an unflattering view for the other user.  The Move range clamps the screen to the shared central beam, allowing the desks to rise and fall independently, while the screen remains in the same position.”  The range also features three types of mechanism to raise the desk – allowing it to compete at different price points.  There’s a traditional crank operated handle, an option with a pneumatic gas-lift and also an electric motorized mechanism.

The recent statistics are frightening and serve as a wake up call to employers and employees alike.  Gavin Bradley concludes: “Too much sitting at work is bad for us, so it’s time to take a stand”.


Get Britain Standing has a unique sitting calculator which enables you to calculate whether you’re daily routine is exposing you to higher risk of ill health.

Andrew Jackson
Marketing Director, Opus4


Insight Newsletter, July 4, 2014. Sara Bean and Gavin Bradley.   https://bit.ly/1sxQu44
Gavin Bradley, Get Britain Standing.  www.getbritainstanding.org. See website for research source links.
BBC News Health, 20 June 2014: article ‘Exercise guidelines hard to meet’ by Dr Mike Loosemore
Jorgen Josefsson, MD, Scandinavian Business Seating.  https://www.sbseating.co.uk/
Colin Austin, Sales Director, Mobili Office Furniture.  https://www.mobili.co.uk/
Stand-Sit desk image – Herman Miller.  www.hermanmiller.com

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