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Few ignore today how deadly smoking is. But less well-known is the fact that many of us spend our days exposed to a possibly no less significant hazard: sitting.
Research shows that sitting can be bad for health in many ways – with some even suggesting it’s as bad as smoking. People who sit for hours on end develop chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, dementia and several types of cancer at much higher rates than people who move throughout their day. A sedentary lifestyle also puts people at a much greater risk of early death. But just exercising daily may not reverse the harmful health effects of sitting.
Because of technological advances, the amount of time adults in industrialised countries like the U.K. spend sitting has been steadily increasing for decades - to the point that this is how many adults now spend the majority of their day. In the UK, it has been estimated that the average adult spends 74 to 78 days each year sitting. And this problem has only gotten worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the migration to more remote work, people are less inclined to venture out of the house these days. Ultimately, sitting has become a public health problem of the 21st century.
For decades, researchers, health professionals, policymakers, and the like have been touting the health benefits of exercise - giving rise to the development and rapid expansion of the fitness industry.
While the health benefits of exercise are undeniable, it may only be a band-aid to a growing issue: our world is becoming a sedentary world
To address this public health problem, we must target the place where adults spend most of their day: the workplace. With the development of computers and labouring-sparing technology, sedentary work has largely created a society of “desk potatoes”. Since the 1950s, the number of working adults in sedentary occupations has more than tripled in industrialized countries. Adults in the UK now spend more time sitting at work than they do sleeping.
Most international health guidelines, including the UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines, now acknowledge prolonged sitting as a health hazard that should be minimised. Despite health experts sounding the alarm on the harms of sitting, workplaces have largely yet to take collective action. To move forward, workplaces, occupational safety agencies, and building designers must acknowledge that seated work for long periods of time is an occupational hazard.
Read more on the Forum Network: Stepping up to the challenge: Why physical activity is good for your health, for healthcare systems and the environment by Alexandra Aldea and Sabine Vuik
Exercise improves cognitive functioning and sleep quality, prevents falls, relieves stress, and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is a win-win-win for individuals, healthcare systems and the environment. And yet, Europeans don’t move enough. What can be done to step up to this challenge?
To create this paradigm shift, campaigns to enhance awareness and understanding of the health hazards of prolonged sitting are needed. But beyond general awareness of the issue, policies at the individual employer level, as well as public policies developed by federal, regional, or local jurisdictions are needed. Policies that allow employees the opportunity to take regular breaks from sitting with short “activity snacks” is one example of a potential strategy to offset the health harms of workplace sitting.
Research shows that regularly breaking up sitting with short walks for as little as 1 to 5 minutes improves blood sugar and blood pressure levels, boosts mood, and reduces feelings of fatigue.
Workplaces can also consider policies that allow employees to have walking meetings as part of their workday, subsidise treadmill desks, cycling desks, and active commuting, and offer paid time or flexible working arrangements to employees to allow them to be physically active during the workday.
But the growing problem of sitting in the workplace does not fall on the shoulders of workplaces alone. Policymakers too need to step up. Occupational safety guidelines and building design frameworks and regulations are needed to promote workplaces designed to enable employees to be physically active in and around their workplace. Without collective action from policymakers across multiple sectors, it will be difficult to change workplace culture and norms where sitting has become the default posture of modern times.
Continuing to expose millions of working adults to hazardous behaviour without any restrictions or guidelines is neglectful. If sitting is the new smoking, then the time has come to do something about it.
To learn more about the benefits of exercising, check out also the new OECD & WHO report Step Up! Tackling the Burden of Insufficient Physical Activity in Europe