Don’t just sit there…you could be doing yourself real harm

By Ian Fletcher-Price

I’ve banged on for years about the health dangers associated with long periods of sitting. Now I’m getting heavyweight support from across the world.

  • In Sweden, Elin Ekblom-Bak of the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences has called on ‘authorities’ to rethink how they define physical activity in order to highlight the dangers of sitting.
  • In Canada, a study that tracked more than 17,000 people for a dozen years found that those who sat more had a higher death risk, whether or not they exercised.
  • And in Australia, a six-year study of 8,800 people found that the risk of death from heart disease increased by one-fifth for each hour spent sitting.

All came to the conclusion that we reached long ago and have preached ever since – that regular movement is vital if people who spend much of their time seated are to avoid health problems.

And here I’m not just talking about the possibility of developing a musculoskeletal condition. According to the studies, too much sitting – whether at a desk, in a car or on a sofa – can put you at an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, various cancers…and early death!

That remains the case even if you regularly visit the gym or go jogging according to Elin Ekblom-Bak. Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, she says that long periods of time spent sitting at a desk can still be harmful even for people who exercise regularly. She explains that after four hours of sitting, the body starts to send harmful signals and the genes that regulate the amount of glucose and fat in the body start to shut down.

So what’s the answer?

"People should keep exercising because that has a lot of benefits," Ms Ekblom-Bak says. "But when they're in the office, they should try to interrupt sitting as often as possible. Don't just send your colleague an email. Walk over and talk to him. Standing up."

All very good and sound advice. But she might also have mentioned that a good ergonomic workstation – a multi-adjustable chair that can adapt to the movements of your body and a sit-stand desk that allows you to move from sitting to standing without interrupting your work – will also help prevent many of the musculoskeletal problems which, while not life-threatening, can be incredibly debilitating.

They are also responsible for a major chunk of the £13.2bn a year that Bupa estimates the UK economy loses each year due to sickness absence.

So it’s sad, and economically inefficient, that another recent survey, this time by insurers Premierline Direct, found that only 26% of small and medium sized businesses bothered to ensure that they provided their employees with a ‘comfortable’ workstation.

Amazingly another 61% admitted that they didn’t have a formal health and safety policy in place. Even if they had, 78% said they hadn’t updated it in the last year.

Such a cavalier attitude to the health and wellbeing of their staff could also explain why so many employees have little guilt about throwing a ‘sickie’.

According to a survey carried out by website, just 46% of sick days are legitimate – in other words, the person is absent because they believed they couldn’t physically perform their work duties.

That means that false sick days could be costing the UK economy £7.1bn a year.

Perhaps if companies showed a little more care for and interest in their staff – like making sure their workstation is ‘comfortable’ – people would feel less inclined to bunk off work.

As it is, the new sickness absence rules that came into effect in April will help all companies – the good and the bad – tighten up on the amount of time and money they lose to malingerers.

From 6 April, sick notes were scrapped to be replaced by ‘fit notes’ which place the focus on what staff can do rather than what they can’t.

The emphasis is now on ‘making simple, practical adjustments to help people back to work at an earlier stage’ – which in most cases, ‘can be achieved at no or low cost to the employer.’

For years we’ve had service level agreements with scores of Britain’s blue chip companies to enable them to help staff incapacitated by musculoskeletal problems to return to work by providing them with the necessary ergonomic furniture and equipment.

With the introduction of the ‘fit note’ scheme, perhaps more SMEs will now see the economic sense in following suit.