Most of my days start with sitting in front of a computer, even before I sit down for breakfast. I may walk to the subway, where I sit on the train, before sitting again in series of meetings. I remember the day, 15 years ago, when I quit smoking and congratulated myself on how the decision would not only improve my health, but my productivity too, since I no longer had a reason to get up from my desk. I feel as though I’ve been sitting ever since.
In case you missed it, this constant sitting is killing us – literally – leading researchers and pundits to declare that sitting is the new smoking. If you accept that theory, then just about everyone in a white-collar job is the equivalent of a heavy nicotine addict.
According to the Mayo Clinic, 50 to 70 per cent of Americans spend six or more hours a day sitting and cutting that in half would add two years to their lives.
Two hours of continuous sitting – that’s a movie or a long meeting – increases one’s risk of developing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, low back pain, and shoulder and neck pain, says Shilpa Dogra, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont.
If you think that regular exercise saves you from this “sitting disease,” think again. Ms. Dogra said that even those who meet Canada’s physical activity guidelines remain at risk. She cites a 2009 study from the American College of Sports Medicine that showed, even when we exceed government recommendations for physical activity, it does not compensate for all the sitting we do.
Unlike smoking, which has been banned from virtually all offices and public spaces in Canada, the working world is conspiring to keep us sitting, making it exceptionally difficult to quit.
“Currently, individuals working in an office setting are assigned a desk and chair, either in their own office or cubicle. They are asked to attend meetings in board rooms or conference rooms where they almost always sit down,” Ms. Dogra said. “From the time an individual is hired, the workplace facilitates sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity.”
This not only affects health and productivity but, according to her own research, that sedentary time also decreases the odds of aging well, forcing many to leave the work force in poor condition after years of sitting still. To combat sitting disease, some workplace health advocates are creating innovative solutions.
Laurel Walzak and Ron Bettin recently co-founded a company called Fitneff Inc., which manufactures fitness productivity equipment, a growing field. The former classmates from the executive MBA program at Queen’s University in Kingston have made it their mission to get workers moving. They conducted a survey, split equally between male and female senior managers in Canada, and found that 43 per cent reported sitting for more than 40 hours a week, not including their commute, eating, reading or watching TV. To counter that sloth, they developed products such as an ergonomic desk that attaches to a treadmill.
Ms. Walzak said that Fitneff products don’t replace intense aerobic exercise but incorporate low-impact, low-intensity movement, such as walking, into the workplace.
In North America, we may be behind on the standing desk trend. Mette Johansen, chief executive officer of Mette Designs, which designs workplaces, expressed her shock when she first arrived in Canada seven years ago from Denmark and observed how much time employees spent sitting.
Ms. Johnson said that 70 per cent of workers in Denmark used adjustable tables as far back as the early 1990s. In recent years, she observed, companies in Canada come a long way even if we still have far to go.
“I’ve had to educate people a lot more about healthy work environments to keep people healthy and productive. So I did a lot of preaching in the beginning. But the industry is changing,” she said.
As part of her design work, she often places kitchens and printers far away from desks so employees must get up and move around.
Admittedly, changing office furniture, even if it does boost creativity and stem health issues, remains a cost challenge for many companies. But there are other solutions.
Nilofer Merchant, a former executive at 3-D design software company Autodesk and an expert on innovation, explained last year in a TED talk that, instead of coffee meetings, she takes walking meetings, to the tune of 20 to 30 miles a week. She said walking and talking not only led to new ideas, but it changed her life.
The concept of walking meetings bring new meaning to our increasingly mobile business culture and it’s certainly a trend I would embrace, if only the business community can – ahem – get behind it.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org