The rise of 'active couch potatoes' - and how to not be one

Close up of a man sitting on a sofa, working with a laptop on his lap

A recent report shows that employees wrongly assume they can cancel out the negative effects of sitting all day at work by being healthy in their spare time.

The report, which questioned 222 desk-based workers and 121 managers in Australia, uses the term 'active couch potato' to describe a person who is active in their spare time, but who spends most of the day at work sitting. It found that if staff members considered themselves to be healthy in their spare time - such as going to the gym after work, they were more likely to underestimate the dangers of uninterrupted sitting at work.

Study author Dr Mussap said: “Uninterrupted sitting constitutes a substantial risk to physical and mental health. This can be problematic for desk-based workplaces where sitting is the norm.

"Although there is growing awareness among workers that prolonged sitting can cause problems, most of these concerns are limited to musculoskeletal health, with little awareness of the known associations between prolonged sitting and a range of cardiovascular diseases and even cancer.

"There are unfounded concerns among both employees and their managers that attempts to interrupt sitting could disrupt the workplace environment and impact negatively on productivity. [...] The problem we face as health professionals is finding ways of changing both health beliefs and health behaviours in the workplace, both in employees and employers."

Dr Mussap added: "The best interventions are those that change long-term habitual-type behaviours. This can be as easy as installing timed alerts or sending automated emails to remind people to move around; providing sit-stand workstations that allow workers to adjust their posture throughout the workday or organising fun group breaks where people are invited to stand up and stretch or even dance around."

Office work is typically sedentary. When we began helping businesses in the '90s, we were focused mainly on preventing and managing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in offices with assessments and ergonomic equipment. Over time our approach has become far more holistic. We understand that MSDs are not isolated problems in offices - they are often symptomatic of wider problems, whether with environment, equipment, or culture - and our job today is to help our clients improve all of these areas. The result is higher productivity, lower absenteeism and all-round happier staff.

Active working - the act of incorporating physical activity into daily workplace tasks, is easy to achieve in an open and accepting culture. Unfortunately many workplaces are failing to make this fundamental change in mindset. Employees are still afraid of leaving their desks too frequently; they are still too embarrassed to move around, or do anything out of the ordinary like take a stretch or carry out some gentle exercises. These stiff, stagnant, tense workplaces are breeding health issues that will only serve to damage the business in the end.

It's worth considering these simple ways to stop staff from becoming active couch potatoes, or even just plain old couch potatoes:

Make it OK to move

Active working begins with communication. Organise training, email round advice (you can rifle through our store of advice sheets and infographics if needed), make sure managers are leading by example. Make it known that staff won't be judged for leaving their desks when they need to. The body knows when it needs to move and resisting those messages will only result in concentration lapses, aches pains and eventual MSDs.

Invest in sit-stand desks

Our new Opløft sit-stand platform should make the decision to make the leap to sit-stand working even easier. They're extremely high quality and beautifully designed for a such a reasonable price, and they're light and slim enough to be moved around easily. This means you could buy a few communal Opløfts that can be used as and when by anybody. They can store away neatly in a cupboard or shelf, and be carried to an employee's workstation when needed. If you'd prefer an electric sit-stand desk, we have a range of height adjustable standing desks to suit your needs.

Walking while working

If you need to brainstorm or have an informal meeting, why not do it on your feet - or even better, take a walk outside. Not only will you benefit from the leg stretch and oxygen boost, but you might even find that the meeting doesn't drag on for longer than necessary. Moving around doesn't mean not doing work. Wireless headsets encourage physical activity while using the phone, and some tasks - like reading, editing, or emailing, don't even need to be carried out at a workstation. Providing a variety of workspaces gives staff the choice and freedom to move around more.

For more ideas and product inspiration, head to our active working page.