As more scientific studies on the impact of prolonged sitting are carried out, further links to a wide range of health problems are being found. As these associations become more widely accepted by the modern office workforce, it has the potential to change how we spend our working lives.
The long term implications of too much sitting are now accepted to be a major factor in four of the seven leading causes of mortality (death) in the Western world. Some of the health implications of long term sitting and inactivity may seem obvious (a propensity towards weight gain for example), but new studies are finding new connections, and some - such as a recent link between sitting and an increased risk of dementia - may come as a surprise.
1. Increased risk of Heart Disease
The World Health Organisation identifies Ischaemic heart disease and stroke together as “the world’s biggest killers, accounting for a combined 15 million deaths in 2015”(1)
A link to heart disease and sitting was first determined by a study in the 1950s (2), which found a marked increase in heart disease in London bus drivers, compared to their bus conductor colleagues, who stood and moved at work.
Many further studies have been carried out and continue and these have found a direct correlation of increased sedentary behaviour and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death due to cardiovascular disease. (3)
The British Heart Foundation encourage a more active working life through their Health at Work scheme, and senior Cardiac Nurse, Julie Ward states “Current Department of Health Guidelines state we should reduce the time we spend sitting”. (4)
2. Increased risk of stroke
An article published in The Lancet (5) suggested that there was a 33% greater risk of stroke in those working 55 or more hours per week, compared with a standard working week of 35-40 hours.
The Stroke Association suggested that as working long hours can involve sitting down for prolong periods, there may be a link between sedentary behaviour at work and stroke (6), although it is recognised that working long hours could also increase stroke risk factors such as stress and less time for exercise and healthy eating.
3. Increased risk of some cancers
Physical activity is known to reduce risk for breast and colon cancer, and it has also been found to reduce womb cancer, according to Cancer Research UK.
Though the type of physical activity is also important. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports that people sitting for long periods during their day increase their risk of developing certain types of cancer than those who are more active throughout the day.
American Cancer Society epidemiologist, Alpa Patel, conducted a study of 123,000 people which concluded that the more time people spend sitting, the greater their risk of premature death. (7)
4. Increased risk of Type 2 diabetes
Sedentary behaviour and sitting in particular has been linked with type 2 diabetes. A study by Diabetologia determined that each extra hour of sitting or reclining each day was associated with 22% increased risk of getting type 2 diabetes.
The Head of Research at Diabetes UK, Dr Matthew Hobbs said that “the overarching message is that spending a lot of time sitting or lying down can be bad for overall health and considerably increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes”.
5. Increased risk of high blood pressure
High blood pressure is linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, strokes and kidney disease. A study from the School of Public Health in the University of Minnesota in 2014 (8) found positive effects and ‘trends towards improvements in blood pressure’ among the study group who spend at least half of their working day at a standing work station.These effects were further improved in those who combined standing with regular movement.
6. Weight gain
A study published in the European Journal of Public Health in November 2017 states that ‘changes in physical activity patterns with more sedentary behaviours and increasing sitting time are related to obesity’.
Standing and walking rather than sitting can have numerous health benefits, including lowering BMI.
Being overweight or obese can lead to many health problems, so it will come as no surprise that staying active and moving around more is a key factor in reducing weight gain.
7. Back pain
It’s estimated that up to 80% of us are affected by back pain at some point in our lives.
As well as taking note of your posture, the ergonomics of your workspace and ensuring that you lift heavy items correctly, standing and moving around regularly are all encouraged by the NHS to reduce and prevent back pain.Something as simple as moving around a little bit more during your working day has to be better than taking lots of painkillers.
8. Increased risk of depression
Sitting for long periods has been linked with depression, although there may be a question of cause and effect - are people who have mental health issues more likely to sit for longer? Or is it that people who sit for longer develop mental health problems as a result?
Studies at the University of Tasmania found links between sitting at work for periods of longer than six hours and increased rates of depression and anxiety, compared to colleagues who didn’t spend as much time sitting.(9)
It is important to note that this study did take into account exercise rates out of working hours, and found that even those who regularly exercised out of work but were sedentary at work still reported higher incidences of anxiety and depression.
9. Increased risk of osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a condition which weakens the bones, leaving them fragile and more prone to breakages, it’s more common in women than men. And for those at risk of developing this condition, it’s important to take preventive measures to keep bones healthy, most notably taking regular exercise.
Although there are many causes of osteoporosis, lifestyle choices do play a part. The Mayo Clinic identified a sedentary lifestyle as a habit which can increase your risk of osteoporosis: “People who spend a lot of time sitting have a higher risk of osteoporosis than those who are more active”. (10)
10. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
DVT is a blood clot which can develop in a deep vein in the body, usually the leg, which can cause pain and swelling. A DVT if left untreated may lead to serious complications such as a pulmonary embolism - a blood clot that travels through the bloodstream to block a blood vessel in the lungs.
It is widely known that DVTs are a risk factor on long-distance journeys of six hours or more, whether by plane, train or car.But if you sit for long periods at work, you are also at risk of DVT. The NHS advises drinking plenty of water, performing simple leg exercises and taking regular, short walking breaks to reduce your risk of DVT (11).
What can we do about it?
There are so many links between prolonged periods of sitting and many major and minor diseases that we shouldn’t continue to sit back and accept the impact on our health. As more and more people are working in office environments, it’s time to take a stand for our health and get out of our sitting desks and start to insist on standing options.
For some of us, this will take a period of adjustment. We have all experienced the aches and pains associated with standing for a long time, which may put many of us off taking the step.
To help make standing more comfortable, AFS-TEX has developed a range of anti-fatigue mats for the active office - they can also be used in industrial settings, workshops and the home. Designed to help you stand comfortably for longer, AFS-TEX helps you get the most from your standing desk.
Take a look at the AFS-TEX range and stand up for yourself!
World Health Organisation Fact Sheet: The top 10 causes of death
Physical Activity of Work Study
Morris JN, Heady JA, Raffle PAB et al (1953)
Having a desk job doubles risk of Heart Attack
Sitting Vs Standing
Long working hours and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: a systematic review and meta-analysis of published and unpublished data for 603 838 individuals
Stroke Association statement on research showing longer working hours increases risk of stroke https://www.stroke.org.uk/news/stroke-association-statement-research-showing-longer-working-hours-increases-risk-stroke
Prolonged sitting linked to cancer http://undergroundhealthreporter.com/prolonged-sitting-linked-to-cancer/
Study finds sit-stand workstations help improve blood pressure reduce cardiometabolic risk https://www.healthtalk.umn.edu/2014/12/22/u-m-study-finds-sit-stand-workstations-help-improve-blood-pressure-reduce-cardiometabolic-risk/
More bad news about sitting: it may harm workers' mental health. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/more-bad-news-about-sitting-it-may-harm-workers-mental-health.html
Osteoporosis - Patient care and health promotion
NHS Choices - Deep vein thrombosis