OHS Canada Magazine

Putting a Lid on Sedentary Lifestyle

February 7, 2019
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By Jean Lian

The health risks arising from sedentary lifestyles have reached an epidemic level. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 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 painted an equally alarming picture. Results from the 2015 Alberta Survey on Physical Activity conducted by the University of Alberta, showed 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.

Apart from better health, being physically active also has cognitive benefits. A study from the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, released on April 24, 2015, found that students with standing desks are more attentive than their seated counterparts. In fact, preliminary results showed 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 from 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, said 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 July 2015 study by the Santa Monica, California-based Human Factors and Ergonomics Society — the world’s largest scientific association for human factors and ergonomics professionals.

In the study Long-Term Muscle Fatigue After Standing Work, the 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.

Perhaps everything in moderation is the best approach. For those who are seated most days, getting up with regular frequency to walk about or do some stretching will incorporate some level of physical activity into their workday. For those who have access to sit-and-stand workstations, the option to stand should be exercised with caution, bearing in mind the duration and posture of standing.

Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.

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