We sit — a lot.
From the time we first enter school until we retire from our careers, the majority of our weekday time is spent sitting: We sit in the car. We sit at our desks. We sit in meetings. We sit and watch TV.
This doesn’t mean we’re lazy. Most of us are extremely busy, with days filled with family needs, gatherings, errands, phone calls, emails, texts, and more. We’re so busy that we often think we’re being active during the day.
The truth is, despite the busyness of our days, most of us move far too little to maintain the health of our priceless bodies.
Research shows that almost two out of three people classify themselves as “active,” even though only about 5 percent of people actually are.
Television and video game time have taken the blame for our lack of activity for years. But it’s actually our school and work environments that cause the greatest amount of sedentary time. People spend more time sitting during workdays than they do on their days off.
Fortunately, many companies are catching on to the importance of keeping their employees active. Moving more throughout the day holds the promise of better employee health and productivity, as well as reduced healthcare costs — not to mention better job satisfaction.
High-top conference tables, standing workstations, and walking meetings are not a passing fad. These activity-promoting office features are here to stay. Here’s why:
Sitting Wrecks Your Metabolism
Extended periods of inactivity wreak havoc on your metabolism, even if you eat well and exercise regularly.
Studies that look at bed rest give us a great idea of what happens to the body when inactivity is taken to an extreme. These studies show that a lack of movement can contribute to insulin resistance, worsening of blood lipids, and a reduction in the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel rather than carbohydrate.
Obviously people who are on bed rest get less activity than those who have sedentary jobs, but the activity level for most people isn’t that much greater than those who are confined to a hospital bed. Here’s the kicker:
The negative effects of inactivity occur even when calories are controlled. Meaning, metabolism gets worse even if people eat fewer calories to compensate for the reduced activity.
Extended periods of sitting can cause a change in metabolism, where fatty acids are shifted away from muscle and toward fat tissue. Since fatty acids become less available to muscles, muscle tissue relies more on carbohydrates. At the same time, since you don’t burn the fat for fuel, blood lipid levels rise.
With muscle tissue’s increased demand for carbohydrate, blood-sugar levels fluctuate more, increasing your cravings for carbs. Because of your reduced use of fat for fuel, the concentration of mitochondria in your cells may decrease. Less mitochondria means you’ll have an even harder time burning fat, and your muscular endurance will decrease — AKA, you’ll fatigue faster.
As muscles get smaller, they have less space to store carbohydrates. The excess of carbohydrate increases the production of insulin and raises your triglyceride levels. The elevated insulin then increases fat storage.
Bed rest studies show that inactivity not only increases subcutaneous body fat (which sits under the skin) levels, but it also increases the storage of fat in muscle tissue and bone marrow.
They also showed that just one day of sitting could decrease insulin sensitivity (resulting in less-effectively used glucose and higher blood sugar) in muscle tissue in otherwise healthy individuals. These changes occurred whether they consumed calories in excess of or matched to their reduced activity level.
From an Employer’s Perspective
No good employer would intentionally expose employees to harm. For example, it’s unheard of today to allow smoking inside a workplace. It’s almost as harmful to give out free soda, candy, and other junk food, although this does still happen in some workplaces because the negative impacts are less widely understood.
If employers are prioritizing their employees’ health and well-being, looking at ways to get them off their desk chairs and onto their feet as much possible throughout the day is also a key need.
In addition to the impacts noted in the above section, sedentary activity is associated with an increased risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol and triglyceride problems.
And guess which health problems are of greatest concern to most corporations? Obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Exercise is definitely important. For many reasons, including that it helps build lean body mass and often helps lower stress levels. But, the negative impact of sitting throughout the day affects exercisers and non-exercisers almost equally.
Evidence suggests that an hour of exercise each day cannot offset the negative effects of sitting the rest of the day — we’ve seen that extended periods of sitting can increase morbidity and mortality risks even in those who exercise for an hour a day. Some evidence even suggests that people who exercise may actually end up sitting more the rest of the day, offsetting some of the benefits of exercise.
There’s no doubt that employers should encourage their employees to exercise and participate in physical activities, such as athletic events. However, because the time it takes to engage in those pursuits only accounts for a fraction of people’s days, to have the greatest impact on health, employees will want to move more throughout the work day as well.
(To learn more about the benefits of standing and how to assess your sitting score, see “The Vital Role Standing — Versus Sitting — Plays in Your Health.”)
The Benefits of a Standing Desk
One of the main reasons sitting disrupts metabolism is due to the prolonged “unloading” of muscle, especially the legs. When you’re sitting, your leg muscles don’t contract, which suppresses an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. This negatively impacts fat and carbohydrate metabolism.
The lack of muscle contraction also affects blood and lymph flow. If you notice you have deep marks on your legs when you take your socks off at night, this is likely the cause.
A lack of muscle contraction can reduce muscle size and strength over time as well.
By simply just standing at your desk, rather than sitting, your leg muscles stay moderately contracted. You also tend to shift your weight back and forth as you stand, which helps with blood flow.
You don’t burn a significant number of calories when standing as compared to sitting, but the act of standing helps you avoid many of the mentioned metabolic changes.
What is the ideal amount of time to spend standing? Is it 5 to 10 minutes per hour? 30 minutes every hour? The whole day? More research needs to be done here.
Our suggestion is to try to stand as much as possible. If you’re someone who currently sits all day, start with a small period of time so your feet, hips, knees, and back get accustom to it.
It’s also important to set up your workstation for proper ergonomics, so you’re not hunched over, looking at a screen well below your shoulders, or having to reach too far for your keyboard.
The Benefits of Walking (And Walking Meetings)
Walking requires more energy than standing does, and therefore provides some additional health benefits.
Much of the research on walking focuses on step targets. For example, one study showed that achieving 10,000 steps or more each day helped to lower blood pressure, improve exercise capacity, and reduce sympathetic stimulation in patients with high blood pressure.
Walking and Stress
When the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for your “fight or flight” response) is chronically activated — as it is with chronic stress, which often happens in the workplace — it cannot only increase your blood pressure, but also stimulate cortisol (your primary stress hormone) production.
Walking can help lower this stress response. This might be especially effective if you have a heavy conversation you need to sort through with a coworker. Take that topic on the road and walk and talk — it’ll be better for your and your co-workers’ health.
10,000 steps seems to be an ideal target to reduce many of the problems associated with sedentarism.
Most of these 10,000 steps should be outside of exercise sessions. For example, if you’re a runner, you can’t expect to reap the benefits of walking 10,000 steps if you get them in an hour-long run and then sit the rest of the day.
Americans on average get in about 6,500 steps each day. Imagine how much better the health could be for employee groups who are encouraged to get their extra 3,500 steps every day at work?
How This Can Apply to Your Daily Life
One study found that office workers, working 8 hours per day, five days a week, 50 weeks per year, would burn an extra 33,000 calories per year by standing up and walking for five minutes each hour of work. Now, there’s a lot more to weight management than calories in, calories out, but if it were that simple, those 33,000 calories would equate to 9.4 pounds of body fat.
If you work in a culture that sits a lot, see what you can do to stand more — even if that means just simply setting your laptop on a stack of textbooks.
We’d also recommend the use of an activity monitor. One of our team members was shocked when he got his first one and realized that he was no better off than the average American.
Including his workouts, he averaged 6,000 steps per day when he first started tracking. This awareness changed his behavior big time.
Almost every adult could probably benefit from using an activity monitor for at least a few months. Once you get in the habit of moving more, you might not need to monitor your behavior as often.
To Sum It Up
If you’re in a position where you have responsibility for the health of your employees, consider implementing ways to help get your employees moving more. If you’re an individual who sits a lot during the week, take initiative to find ways to move more.
As a health and fitness company, we’re obviously big believers in the importance of exercise. But we also understand that, unless you’re a serious athlete, exercise only accounts for around 3 to 6 hours of a 168-hour week. Which is why it’s all the more important to prioritize consistent, daily movement — in whatever way you can get it in.