/ Focused / Beware of Your Chair – The Dangers of Sitting

Beware of Your Chair – The Dangers of Sitting

Kaye Kennedy

An ominous photo of a chair, with a light bulb above it.

If you are one of the millions of American workers who rush to work every morning just to sit down for 8 to 10 hours you might not want to “sit this one out.” In fact, the latest research suggests that you would be better off reading this standing up. Research from the American College of Cardiology proposes that sitting for long stretches may be just as bad for your cardiovascular health as smoking. Sitting for extended periods of time has been linked to the very conditions that company based Wellness programs are trying to combat. Namely, conditions like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and premature death.

“But my employees use our company fitness facility,” you might say. While that is good it’s not good enough. Epidemiologists are beginning to doubt whether a daily exercise routine does enough to counteract the effects of too much sitting on the job. Inactivity researchers explain that even if a person exercises 30 minutes most days a week and gets 8 hours of sleep each night there are still 15 plus hours of inactivity that could be wreaking havoc on their health. Those 15 plus hours are making employees fat, weak and for some it may even be a death wish, according to doctors.

Working at a desk requires minimal muscle activity. In fact, the large muscle groups of our legs and back are essentially taking a nap when we sit. When we sit at a desk for an extended period, the three curves of the spine (cervical, thoracic, and lumbar) can round or compress.Chronic low back pain has increased significantly over the last 10 years. No doubt because sitting all day causes hip flexors and hamstrings to shorten and tighten, while the muscles that support the spine become weak and stiff.

While our employee’s productivity may be going up while they are at their desks, the inactivity of their muscles is creating a world of hurt. When employees are on conference calls, at meetings, returning phone calls, sending emails and doing all of those necessary things that keep the company moving forward their bodies are going into shutdown mode. Think of it like your computer screen. After a few minutes of inactivity the computer goes to sleep requiring you to enter a password or touch the keyboard to wake it up again.

Keep in mind we were not made to sit at a desk all day. We have evolved into desk dwelling creatures. Inactivity researchers point out that when we sit for prolonged periods of time electrical activity in the muscles plummets. This extreme state of inactivity leads to an avalanche of negative metabolic effects. The rate at which we burn calories takes a drastic drop. Insulin effectiveness plunges within 24 hours causing the risk of type 2 diabetes to increase. The risk of obesity rises while the levels of HDL (happy cholesterol) fall because the enzymes necessary for ridding our blood stream of fat fall dramatically.  The metabolism slows to a crawl.

The work that our employees do is very important as is their health while doing it. So, the question for employers is how can we create a more mindful work environment? That is, an environment wherein employees are not only mindful about what they are doing but how they are doing it. Whether your company is up and running with a Wellness program or still trying to figure out how to start one, creating a culture of movement is really easier than you might think. The work place is dynamic in its own right. Adding physical activity to an already vital office, factory or store environment can be accomplished through subtle cultural shifts, as well as, the introduction of programs that encourage movement.
The quickest way to address the sitting epidemic is to stand up! Move! Many of the California-based companies I work with have instituted walking meetings. They take their meetings outside and walk the campus while discussing business objectives. Employees are still being productive but they are moving while doing it. The change in environment also provides a much needed mental clarity break for employees. One employee told me that “It’s like taking a vacation from your desk. Just doing what I do every day in a different setting for a few minutes makes a huge difference in my mood.”

In many of my corporate accounts I am introducing basic stretching programs. Employees are trained on how to do some basic stretches while at their desk. Consider It Done (Southern California legal support firm) employees engage in a stretch break at 10am and 2pm regularly. Everything stops for 10 minutes while employees stretch wherever they might be. Even the president stops what he is doing to do shoulder rolls and enjoy a few ujjayi breaths. We also instituted a Green Room for employees. The Green Room is a Zen and peaceful space where employees can go to meditate and do additional stretching on their own at any time during the course of the day.

Any time employees can get their blood pumping the organs will be fired up to do things that are good for the body. Encourage them to interrupt sitting whenever they can with activities like walking and marching in place. Suggesting employees take calls standing, rely a little less on email and speak to each other face to face are subtle cultural shifts. One of my friends recently purchased a stability ball to use as his desk chair. It took a few weeks to get used to it. He started off by using it a couple of hours a day until his core strength improved. Just 3 months later he believes it is the best thing he could have done for his low back.

We all know that there is powerful medicine in our walking shoes. Re-visit your worksite walking programs. If you have given employees pedometers hold them accountable by encouraging so many steps by lunch or the end of the day. We recently implemented a walking program at a small engineering firm in Oakland, CA. With only 50 employees there were fewer obstacles to employee engagement. It also helped that the CEO walked Lake Merritt every day. We used this as a platform for starting their walking program. Groups were formed. Walking dates were made via a community board in the cafeteria. The Wellness committee also established a rainy day plan, wherein, employees were encouraged to put in enough steps to log a half a mile within the office. Every time an employee was successful in reaching the half mile goal they earned Wellness points to be cashed in at the end of the quarter.

Almost all of the companies I work with are offering their employees some form of Yoga during the work day. The benefits of a basic Yoga practice are endless and are ideal in a work environment. What employee couldn’t benefit from from mental clarity, stress reduction, increased circulation and an energy boost? In a recent Mindful Mood Management seminar, I started my presentation with some basic yoga stretches and breathing techniques. It was short, simple and functional done right there in the company’s board room. One of the participants asked “did we just do a little Board Room Yoga? Nice!” People were pleasantly surprised at the mental and physical charge they got from a few sun salutations and deep breaths.

Be sure to address ergonomics in your office. OSHA offers some excellent on-line tools to help employees make small tweaks that translate to huge relief for those trouble spots like the eyes, wrists, back, and neck. The use of easily adjustable furniture, for example, allows workers to frequently change seated postures, which allows different muscle groups to provide support while others rest. Some basic education on things like substituting keystrokes for mousing tasks, such as Ctrl+S to save, Ctrl+P to print can prove quite helpful to your employees.

The goal of any Wellness program should be to spur employees on to a healthier lifestyle. Even if employees are gym goers and week-end warriors, they are still glued to the chair for a large portion of the day. An employee Wellness program has to figure out how to incorporate non-exercise, simple movements, to counteract all the sitting that employees do. Maybe an office full of fidgeting employees taking a few micro-breaks a day wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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