If standing is the answer, what was the question?
A revolutionary – some say evolutionary – change is taking place throughout New Zealand workplaces. People are getting out of their chairs and standing up for their health, and enjoying some other unexpected benefits along the way.
But how did the change to standing at work come about, and does it really make any difference to peoples’ health and well-being? We look at some early research into the benefits of standing and the dangers of excessive sitting.
The move away from sitting all day at work is the most fundamental change to how people interact in New Zealand offices since the introduction of desktop computers.
The trend started around 2011, when the media started to publish information about the harm of sitting for long periods of time.
A ground breaking and often quoted article in the New York Times, “Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?“, was published in 2011, around the same time google search results for ‘standing desks‘ began to skyrocket.
In the article, readers were drawn toward Mayo Clinic Researcher Dr James Levine’s study into how much (or little) people moved, and were intrigued by his magic underpants.
Dr. Levine’s magic underpants, similar to lycra bicycle shorts, were fitted with sensors to monitor participants’ movement and motion. He wanted to discover why some people that consume the same number of calories per day as others gain more weight.
The study involved giving each participant controlled amounts of food each day and recording every movement they made, no matter how minute. It was discovered that the participants in the study who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more.
“They hadn’t started exercising more, that was prohibited by the study“, says Dr. Jensen, a research colleague of Dr Levine.
“Their bodies simply responded naturally by making more little movements than they had before the overfeeding began, like taking the stairs, trotting down the hall to the office water cooler, bustling about with chores at home or simply fidgeting.”
“On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who hadn’t.” he says.
So what’s the big deal here? Do we really need academics in white coats (or magic underpants) to conduct studies that tell us sitting around will lead to weight gain or bad backs? And why the need to stand? Can we not shed the excess kilos or improve our posture through dieting or working out at the gym regularly?
As it turns out, no! Further research found that the adverse effects of sitting were not offset by diet or exercise.
Dr. Levine says that being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and lay on the couch or work out at the gym. And there’s no difference whether you’re morbidly obese or super thin.
As Pennington Biomedical Center Researcher Marc Hamilton explains, the idea that diet and exercise can counter the harm caused by excessive sitting makes as little sense as claiming jogging every afternoon will offset the effect of smoking a packet of cigarettes a day.
“Exercise is not a perfect antidote for sitting,” Mr Hamilton says.
Dr. Levine’s answer is to get up out of your chair and introduce some movement into your day. He says that engaging in thousands of daily minor movements while standing will produce major health benefits.
And he even coined a name for it: NEAT, an acronym which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. In short, this simply means all of those minute movements that make up a day, the small stuff, such as bending slightly at the knees while standing, curling your toes, rocking back on the ball of your foot etc.
Most of us who are office bound cannot replicate the activity of the Jamaican farmers that Dr. Levine studied, who average 5000 daily movements and 300 minutes sitting per day.
What we can do is choose to change our working environment to stand and move more than the obese subjects in his study who averaged only 1,500 daily movements and nearly 600 minutes sitting.