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the future of work

When my kindergarten-aged daughter came home from school the other day complaining that her legs were tired from standing all day, I felt delighted.

"They only let me sit at snack time," she said.

Regardless of her teacher's motive, it's reassuring to see children being taught that you can move around and work simultaneously – a lesson she may take with her to adulthood.

For several years now, we've heard that "sitting is the new smoking," and that sedentary lifestyles are killing us, but we just can't stop. Perhaps focusing on the long-term risks of sitting – hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and cancer – isn't the key to changing our behaviour and it's time to focus on the more positive, short-term benefits.

Moving around more at work has been shown to make people more creative and focused, and decreases absenteeism, explained Dr. Allana LeBlanc, a physical activity expert for Participaction.

The national non-profit organization that's determined to help Canadians sit less is on a mission to change corporate culture. Last week, it held its fifth annual "Sneak It In Week," encouraging Canadians to take short, active breaks during the work day and spend less time at their desks.

Sixty-three per cent of Canadian office workers say they are worried about the amount of time they spend sitting at work, according to Participaction's latest survey, with one in five office workers admitting that they spend at least eight hours a week – or an entire business day – sitting in meetings.

Yet, perhaps Participaction's emphasis on sneaking in physical activity just continues to feed our guilt about moving around at work. If we are going to stop sitting, we need to stop being shy about it.

According to the survey, Canadians are ready to make changes at work that allow them to be more active, with 54 per cent saying they would be open to a walking meeting. Forty-one per cent say they would like to stand in meetings, but worry that office culture hasn't adapted yet to find such behaviour acceptable.

Luckily, to change corporate culture, all that's needed is approval from above. A study published in Preventive Medicine last year showed that informing employees of the risks of sitting and giving them permission to stand increased that behaviour by 60 per cent.

Dr. LeBlanc suggested that adapting business meetings to reflect this new culture would pay dividends not only in health benefits, but creativity and productivity. She cites a study from Stanford that showed walking indoors or outdoors increased creativity and the flow of ideas anywhere from 80 to 100 per cent.

"After a sitting meeting, you might feel more lethargic, which will make you want to get a coffee or something sweet to perk you up. If we can figure out ways to make office workers more active, like walking around the block, they will be even more productive when they get back to work," Dr. LeBlanc said.

Meetings aren't the only culprits. Many people experience long commutes to and from work and then return home to relax in front of a television. Dr. LeBlanc noted that just 20 per cent of Canadians are meeting the recommended guideline of 150 minutes of heart-pumping activity a week. Even active people may be unwittingly falling prey to "sitting disease."

They might go to the gym before sitting for eight hours at work or engage in active jobs, like delivering the mail, only to return home and spend hours on the sofa watching Netflix. Dr. LeBlanc calls these people "active couch potatoes" and said her goal is to work on two kinds of behaviour, (being sedentary at work and during recreation time) instead of just one.

Laurel Walzak, chief operating officer of Canadian company Fitneff, which markets treadmill desks, sit-stand desks and other products to encourage physical activity said she sees a growing number of active workplaces, especially in creative industries, but that it hasn't hit the tipping point yet.

"There is no reason why we need to be sitting and chained to our desk to maintain our productivity in the workplace. Technology has put us in our chairs but technology also allows us to be able to move and be more mobile," Ms. Walzak said.

Ms. Walzak said that many corporations have yet to understand the cost of "sitting disease" but that getting people moving can have a positive and demonstrable impact on the health of a company's employees and its bottom line.

Corporate Canada, she said, can easily reduce barriers for employees seeking a less sedentary lifestyle by promoting walking meetings and sending the message that sit-stand desks and treadmill desks aren't just for "fooling around."

"It's not going to happen overnight but for behaviour modification at work, it needs to come from the top," Ms. Walzak said.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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