Sit less, exercise more
Photo: Google’s Amsterdam office, courtesy of Google.
How much do most of us move at work? In some offices, you can get the impression of being surrounded by zombies! The average adult can sit for up to 11.5 hours a day, with most of this time in the office – back bent, perhaps chair not set properly – and the only reason to move to go to the printer – if we do not have one beside our desk. Not to mention our uncomfortable office clothes, in which we must be careful not to be too active.
The consequences? Lower back pain, disc prolapse, gastro-intestinal problems, obesity and, ultimately, sick and absent employees. According to the Integrated Benefits Institute, US workforce illness costs $576bn annually, due to sickness absence and workers’ compensation. It seems reasonable to assume that a not inconsiderable percentage of these absences and illnesses could be linked to the consequences of sitting too much. Another study in the American Journal of Epidemiology even proved that the death rate among people who sit more than six hours a day is about 30% higher than those who sit for about three hours a day.
If we were not sitting so much, we would live longer and be healthier, and employers would benefit from reduced sickness and absence. So how can we get out of the habit of being stationery?
In one attempt to do just this, American journalist Dan Kois thought it would be better to stand all day instead of sitting, and tried completing all his office work standing for one month. His conclusion: “We are not used to standing anymore” – he did not feel better, but suffered new, different complaints – so standing all day seems to be no better than sitting.
What else can we do? Furniture suppliers have introduced plenty of products to the market, meant to prevent office workers from sitting in the same position all day, for example, the famous “Pezzi Ball” or the “Swopper”. One of the latest developments is the “Limbic Chair”, designed to encourage more movement. What remains to be seen is whether these products may enhance the possibility of accidents at work.
What we think, is that all this only fights the symptoms, not the causes, of us being Office Zombies. We need to change our entire attitude and behaviours. We need to reconsider physical movement at the workplace: away with printers at desks, away with lunch delivery services! We should change positions and spaces and stand up more often, ask ourselves if it’s really necessary to do all of our tasks sitting on a chair. What about a standing meeting, or a meeting while taking a walk? What about using the stairs instead of the elevator? After all, many offices have introduced Non-Territorial Working, where the nature of the task determines where you do it. If you have to focus on a difficult task, move and go to a quiet zone. If you have a creative meeting, move and go to an informal meeting area. Non-territorial working helps to hold us back from spending all day in the same position. This is a good start – but we can do more. How can we motivate people to use staircases – what does a staircase have to offer to make us go there? What new technologies might help us use the full potential of non-territorial working?
There is definitely a lot more we can do, and a long way to go. While I’m working right now (non-territorially) I am – what do you think? – sitting! What else? I am on a train, returning from meeting a client. It can seem as if the whole world is forcing us to sit all the time, whether we like it or not.
Did this make you jump up from your chair? Please tell us your story!
Anna Felkel (email@example.com) and Jennifer Gunkel (firstname.lastname@example.org) are consultants with AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice in Munich.