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Sitting is the new smoking, and it’s time to quit Add to ...

It was slipping on a patch of ice and twisting as he fell that dealt the final blow to Tim Sitt’s back. But the injury had been waiting to happen for months, his chiropractor told him – the direct result of slouching at his office desk for 12 or more hours a day.

“I was tight through my hip flexors, my quads, my glutes,” he recalls. “I was tight everywhere.”

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The chiropractor prescribed a series of exercises to be done at intervals throughout Sitt’s workday as a child and family therapist, aiming to fix muscular weakness, tightness and imbalances, and break up extended periods of motionless sitting.

Sitt was motivated – until it came time to actually get up from his desk every hour or two, under the puzzled gaze of his co-workers, and perform prone hip thrusts and other odd manoeuvres.

Over the past few years, prolonged sitting has emerged as a new health scourge. Sitting is the new smoking, headlines warn. But even as awareness of the problem grows, proposed solutions like regular activity breaks and adjustable-height desks have run into a stubborn problem: workplace culture. Sitt’s experience convinced him that psychology is as important as physiology in the fight against sedentary behaviour, and spurred him to launch a new program tackling the problem on an organizational, rather than personal, scale.

The list of ills associated with hours of uninterrupted sitting includes elevated risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other conditions, which occur as your muscles switch into a “dormant” mode that compromises their ability to break down fats and sugars. Crucially, exercising before or after work isn’t enough to counteract these effects – sitting all day is harmful no matter how fit and active you are.

Knowing may be half the battle, but the other half (actually doing something about it) is the hard part. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in January, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia tried a multipronged approach to figure out the best ways to prompt behaviour change in office groups.

The study compared three groups of university employees who typically spent more than six hours out of every eight-hour day sitting. One group received adjustable-height desks; the second received the desks along with ongoing individual and organizational-level guidance; the third group received no instructions and served as the control group. After three months, the desks-only group had reduced their sitting time by a modest 33 minutes compared to the controls, while the desks-plus-guidance group dropped 89 minutes, getting close to the 50-50 sit-stand split recommended by the researchers.

The additional support included face-to-face coaching and goal-setting, group brainstorming sessions on ways to reduce sitting time, regular e-mail reminders and consultation with managers.

“Changing sitting habits may not be as simple as providing new desks,” lead researcher Maike Neuhaus said. “Sitting habits are ingrained in office routines, and we found that workers acting alone may feel awkward when standing during meetings or at their desk.”

Sitt, a former personal trainer, reached the same conclusion while struggling to rehabilitate his back. He saw a dramatic improvement in his overall health once he established a routine of taking five or six one-minute breaks each day to perform simple exercises at his desk, so he decided to launch a program to encourage others to do the same.

The key barrier, he realized, wasn’t the time commitment, which is less than 10 minutes a day, but getting a critical mass of people doing similar things, so he aimed his MOVE program at employers rather than employees. The nine-week intervention starts with one-on-one consultations, then assigns a range of simple exercises and stretches for one-minute breaks, and includes a weekly half-hour lunch workshop.

An initial pilot project with 10 employees at the charity Free the Children produced improvements in a range of assessment measures, including strength (as measured by push-ups) and flexibility (sit-and-reach test), as well as less tangible measures like energy and fatigue levels.

The pilot data also confirmed that the biggest barrier to adherence was feeling awkward about doing the movement breaks around other employees not participating in the program. There was, Sitt admits, some teasing.

Given the costs associated with sedentary behaviour – one study estimated that the least active employees are less productive by about three hours per week – this all-too-common workplace culture is something that employers would be wise to address. Change is hard, but Neuhaus’s research shows that getting the whole office involved with a formal program makes a difference.

In other words, sitting resembles “the new smoking” in yet another way: Quitting is way easier when you’re not the only one doing it.

Alex Hutchinson blogs about exercise research at sweatscience.runnersworld.com.

ON THE BALL

Most of us know we should be less sedentary at work. But there are a lot of impediments to actually getting up from your desk and getting a little exercise. Not least of these is the awkwardness of being the person doing lunges in the middle of the office. We wanted to find out just how hard it can be to exercise at work.

“I got [an exercise] ball to deal with back pain issues due to poor seating posture. When I first got the ball I got a lot of stares from co-workers, especially since the trading floor is a huge open environment where everyone is visible. However, it’s a great opportunity for an introduction. (‘Hey, you’re the guy that sits on that ball! How’s that? Can I try?’). And people are generally very positive and inquisitive. It also gives you the privilege of replying, ‘I’m so on the ball today’ to queries such as, ‘Hi, how are you?’” Alex Farberov, vice-president, BMO Capital Markets

“What would it take for me to exercise at my desk? A closed door, a change of clothes, loud music and accommodating neighbours.”

Doug Bourassa, lawyer, Chaitons

“I’ve never been very good at sitting still. Luckily, my desk is fairly tucked away so my colleagues aren’t subjected to my contorted posture or odd stretch routines. Sometimes I’ll stand up to take a phone call, and when possible I go on a walk. In my dream office set-up, I’d have a treadmill desk.” Laura Creedon, account director, Pilot PMR

These interviews have been condensed and edited by Dave McGinn.

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