When Sitting Becomes a Disease
By Jack Rosenberger
Until recently I admired people who could sit at their desk for most of the day. You know, the coworker who is planted in front of his computer all morning and all afternoon, as fixed in place as a park statute, and just works and works and works. At a previous job I knew a project manager who always put in solid nine-hour days and got up from his desk only eight or less times during the entire work day. He’d literally sit in front of his desktop computer for hours. I used to be in awe of such people. Now, however, I worry about their health.
Because I’ve read several articles about how much people sit—one study projects that, on average, Americans sit for 9.3 hours a day; another found that people sit for 56 hours a week—and the resulting side effects, which include cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Excessive sitting is so common in our modern, tech-oriented society that it has led to the creation of a new area of medical study called inactivity physiology. One such study, published last year in Circulation, examined the lives of almost 9,000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched each day, the risk of dying increased by 11 percent. James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic who has extensively studied excessive sitting, which he defines as sitting for nine hours a day, considers it “a lethal activity.”
But it doesn’t much matter whether you’re sitting in front of a television at home or a computer monitor at work. Excessive sitting causes your body to shut down at the metabolic level, which is the foundation of human health. (Here’s a very good article that explores the medical details.)
Fortunately, viable workplace solutions exist. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Analyze your workplace behavior and look for opportunities to replace sitting-based activities with non-sitting ones. For example, instead of emailing an office coworker, get up from your desk and walk to his or her workspace and talk.
2. Get up from your desk at regular intervals during the day and walk around. At CIO Insight, I try to leave my desk and walk in the office at least once every half hour. What I do isn’t really important; what is important is that I have gotten up from my desk and am standing or walking.
3. Replace sitting meetings with walking meetings. This idea is from Nilofer Merchant, a corporate director at Ambassadors Group. Four years ago, Merchant switched from sitting meetings to walking meetings, and now averages about four walking meetings each week and walks 20 to 30 miles as a result. (For more about Merchant’s take on sitting disease, here’s her Harvard Business Review post, which is provocatively titled “Sitting Is the Smoking of Our Generation.”)
I first learned about sitting disease from my mother, who had read about it in a newspaper article that she subsequently shared with me. You can do likewise. Talk to your fellow employees, family and friends about the dangers of sitting disease and encourage them to spend less time sitting and more time being physically active. Or share this blog post with others. Sitting disease is a greatly underappreciated health problem, and it’s affecting the health of our workforce and, hence, the economic health of our nation. On a personal level, it’s also probably affecting the health of someone close to you.
About the Author
Jack Rosenberger is the managing editor of CIO Insight.