The adverse health effects stemming from sedentary work are well documented. For some workplaces, equipping an office with standing desks or treadmill workstations may not be practical or feasible — not to mention the prohibitive costs of replacing conventional workstations with their avant-garde counterparts.
But a recent study out of the University of Iowa may have found a middle ground: placing portable pedalling devices under workstations, which would allow sedentary employees to be more active without having to make major changes to their work areas.
Lucas Carr, assistant professor of health and human physiology and member of the Obesity Research and Education Initiative at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, found that employees who used to sit all day are now moving at work without having to get up. The study also found that those who pedalled more are more likely to lose weight, indicate improved concentration at work and have fewer sick days than their colleagues who pedalled less.
Comfort and ease of use are key. “We wanted to see if workers would use these devices over a long period of time, and we found the design of the device is critically important,” Carr says in a statement issued by the university on August 10.
Privacy, which can be achieved by providing each employee with a pedalling device, is another essential component, as few employees would use a high-end exercise bike or treadmill desk placed in the hall for common use. “It is a great idea in theory, but it doesn’t work over the long haul for most people,” Carr suggests.
The study findings, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, were based on a 16-week pilot study — the third-longest in a series of studies that Carr conducted to test portable pedal machines among workers with sedentary jobs. His interest stems from growing evidence that people who sit all day — even if they are active outside of work — are at heightened risk for serious health conditions, such as multiple chronic diseases, poorer cognitive function and mental distress.
“A lot of companies have gone the route of building expensive fitness facilities that typically get used only by the most healthy employees,” Carr notes. “The people who need to improve their health the most are less likely to use worksite fitness facilities.” Providing the option for employees to be active at their desk could be an effective way to improve their health, especially among those who are reluctant to exercise, he suggests. This, in turn, could lead to reduced healthcare costs for employers.
Shades of Inactivity
The health risks arising from sedentary lifestyles have reached an epidemic level. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 3.3 million people die annually due to physical inactivity, making it the fourth-highest cause of mortality. The Canadian Cancer Society indicates that Canadian adults are not physically active for most of the day, with both men and women spending almost 70 per cent of their waking hours in sedentary activities.
A survey on the state of physical activity out west paints an alarming picture. Results from the 2015 Alberta Survey on Physical Activity, conducted by the University of Alberta, shows that one-third of Albertans sit for 10 hours or more a day, with the average Albertan sitting nine hours per weekday and 8.25 hours on each weekend day. Employment status also influences the amount of time spent being sedentary. Students and full-time employees are most likely to sit for more than 10 hours per day, while the unemployed, retired, semi-retired or those who are on leave or disability are most likely to be sedentary for less than six hours per day.
Dr. Christina Loitz, the report’s co-author and knowledge translation specialist at the Alberta Centre for Active Living in Edmonton, says in a statement issued on March 9 that sedentary behaviour is associated with poor health, independent from physical inactivity. “This means if one sits for 12 hours a day and exercises for 30 minutes, they are still at risk of several chronic diseases.”
Nora Johnston, director of the Alberta Centre for Active Living, advises Albertans to be mindful of their activity levels and to make slow, sustainable changes. “Workplaces and communities can create a culture that supports moving more, standing more and being more active,” she adds.
The survey makes recommendations in three key areas: active transportation like walking, cycling or wheeling; leisure-time activities, such as dog walking, outdoor fun, sports and active time with others; and workplace practices that include active breaks, standing more often, using the stairs, fitness facilities and walking meetings or challenges.
Active Body, Alert Mind
Apart from better health, being physically active also has cognitive benefits. A recent study from the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, released on April 24, found that students with standing desks are more attentive than their seated counterparts. In fact, preliminary results show 12 per cent greater on-task engagement in classrooms with standing desks, which equates to an extra seven minutes per hour of engaged instruction time.
The findings were based on data regarding almost 300 children in second through fourth grade in the United States over the course of a school year. Engagement was measured by on-task behaviours, such as answering a question, raising a hand or participating in active discussion.
“Standing workstations reduce disruptive behaviour problems and increase students’ attention or academic behavioural engagement by providing students with a different method for completing academic tasks, like standing, that breaks up the monotony of seated work,” Mark Benden, Ph.D., associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health in College Station, Texas, says in a statement. “We think better on our feet than in our seat.”
If it works for kids, it should work for adults. But before firms start modifying their office layouts to incorporate standing workstations, another study yields conflicting insights. Prolonged standing is associated with short-term adverse health issues, including fatigue, leg cramps and backaches, which can affect job performance, according to a recent study by the Santa Monica, California-based Human Factors and Ergonomics Society — the world’s largest scientific association for human factors and ergonomics professionals.
“The work-related musculoskeletal implications that can be caused by prolonged standing are a burden not only for workers, but also for companies and society,” María Gabriela García, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zürich — an international university for technology and the natural sciences in Zurich, Switzerland — says in a statement issued on July 13.
In Long-Term Muscle Fatigue After Standing Work, García’s research team asked participants of two age groups to simulate standing work for five-hour periods. Participants were allowed to take brief, seated rest breaks and a 30-minute lunch. Evidence indicated significant long-term fatigue following the five-hour workday, even when it included regular breaks, and adverse symptoms that persisted for at least 30 minutes following a seated recovery period. Young adults aged 18 to 30 were just as likely to experience long-term fatigue as workers over the age of 50 were.
“Long-term fatigue after prolonged standing work may be present without being perceived,” García cautions. “Current work schedules for standing work may not be adequate for preventing fatigue accumulation, and this long-lasting muscle fatigue may contribute to musculoskeletal disorders and back pain.”
Meanwhile, Carr is encouraged by the response he received from 27 employees of a company in Iowa City, who volunteered to have pedalling devices placed under their desks. An activity monitor connected to the devices tracked each participant’s daily pedal time, which averaged 50 minutes a day over 16 weeks. Each week, participants also received three emails on how to move more at work and to shift their posture. At the end of the study, 70 per cent of participants chose to keep their pedalling devices.
“This is something that could be provided to just about any employee, regardless of the size of their company or office,” Carr says. “They can use it whenever they want.”
Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.