Risks of sitting too long
Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, trips to the gym, lunch hour walks - the value of exercise is understood by both individuals and organizations. What may not be as well known are the health risks of sitting for long periods at a time - regardless of how much you exercise.
How working in a sitting position can affect your health
Those who must spend long periods in a seated position on the job such as taxi drivers, call centre professionals and office workers, are at risk for injury and a variety of adverse health effects.
The most common injuries occur in the muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments, affecting the neck and lower back regions. Prolonged sitting:
- reduces body movement making muscles more likely to pull, cramp or strain when stretched suddenly,
- causes fatigue in the back and neck muscles by slowing the blood supply and puts high tension on the spine, especially in the low back or neck, and
- causes a steady compression on the spinal discs that hinders their nutrition and can contribute to their premature degeneration.
Sedentary employees may also face a gradual deterioration in health if they do not exercise or do not lead an otherwise physically active life. The most common health problems that these employees experience are disorders in blood circulation and injuries affecting their ability to move. Deep Veinous Thrombosis (DVT), where a clot forms in a large vein after prolonged sitting, sometimes called "Traveller's Thrombosis" because it is sometimes observed after a long flight, is also a risk.
Employees, who for years spend most of their working time seated, may experience other, less specific adverse health effects. Decreased fitness, reduced heart and lung efficiency, and digestive problems are common. Recent research has identified too much sitting as an important part of the physical activity and health equation, and suggests we should focus on the harm caused by daily inactivity such as prolonged sitting.
Data collected in a 1990's Australian study on the prevalence of diabetes and its risk factors was further analysed by a team led by associate professor David Dunstan to determine whether people's television viewing time was related to their metabolic health. Results showed that people who watched television for long periods of time (more than four hours a day), were at risk of:
- higher blood levels of sugar and fats,
- larger waistlines, and
- higher risk of metabolic syndrome
regardless of how much moderate to vigorous exercise they had.
In addition, people who interrupted their sitting time more often just by standing or with light activities such as housework, shopping, and moving about the office had healthier blood sugar and fat levels, and smaller waistlines than those whose sitting time was not broken up.
What does this mean for workers?
Injuries resulting from sitting for long periods are a serious occupational health and safety problem and are expected to become more common with the continuing trend toward work in a sitting position. An important step is to recognize that prolonged sitting can be a health risk, and that efforts must be made to design jobs that help people reduce and break up their sitting time.
How can you design a job that requires prolonged sitting?
The main objective of a job design for a seated employee is to reduce the amount of time the person spends "just" sitting. Frequent changes in the sitting position are not enough to protect against blood pooling in the legs or to prevent other injuries.
Five minutes of a more vigorous activity, such as walking for every 40 to 50 minutes of sitting, can provide protection. These breaks are also beneficial because they give the heart, lungs and muscles some exercise to help counterbalance the effects of sitting for prolonged periods in a relatively fixed position. Where practical, jobs should incorporate "activity breaks" such as work-related tasks away from the desk or simple exercises which employees can carry out at the workstation or worksite.
Another important aspect of job design is consulting with and getting feedback from employees. No matter how good the workplace and the job designs, there are always aspects of the job that can and must be tailored to the individual.
The bottom line: stand up, move around and get off your backside as frequently as you possibly can. But understand that physical activity is just one part of the equation for preventing the harmful effects of prolonged sitting. Other important factors include chair selection, workstation design and training. More information can be found in Additional Resources below.
Advice on working in a sitting position, CCOHS
Sitting Less: An Important Ingredient in our Recipe for Health, Alberta Centre for Active Living
Too much sitting: A novel and important predictor of chronic disease risk?, British Journal of Sports Medicine
The Science Of Sedentary Behavior: Too Much Sitting And Too Little Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine
Tips & Tools
How to secure your portable ladder
Before you mount that portable ladder learn what precautions you must take to secure it and avoid becoming an injury statistic. Falls from portable ladders are a common cause of workplace injuries often because the ladder is not used properly. Follow these 10 tips to secure your ladder and be safe on the climb.
- Rest the top of the ladder against a solid surface that can withstand the load.
- Attach a ladder stay across the back of a ladder where a surface cannot stand the load. Extend the stay across a window for firm support against the building walls or window frame.
- Guard or fence off the area around a ladder erected in an area where persons have access.
- Secure the ladder firmly at the top to prevent it from slipping sideways or the foot from slipping outwards.
- Station a person at the foot of a ladder when it is not possible to tie at the top or secure it at the foot. This is effective only for ladders up to 5 m (16 ft.) long.
- Ensure that the person at the foot of the ladder faces the ladder with a hand on each side rail and one foot resting on the bottom rung.
- Attach hooks on top of ladder rails where the ladder is to be used at a constant height.
- Do not rest a ladder on any rung. Only the side rails are designed for this purpose.
- Secure the base of a ladder to prevent accidental movement. Securing a ladder at the foot does not prevent a side slip at the top.
- Use ladders equipped with non-slip feet. Otherwise nail a cleat to the floor or anchor the feet or bottom of the side rails.
Learn about the ladder safety course from CCOHS.
Learn more ladder safety tips from OSH Answers.
Germany reports that around 18 million people in that country work in an office, sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen. The average office worker spends about 80,000 hours seated in the course of his working life and 80% of those who work at the computer every day regularly suffer from health problems. Two thirds suffer from tension and pain in the shoulder and neck, more than half have back problems and around 45% suffer from eye problems and headaches.
The use of technology has changed the way we work and play. With computers and the use of email, many of the reasons people used to move around the office no longer exist. The everyday tasks that used to be a routine part of office work - hand delivering documents, walking over to coworkers to discuss issues or share work - can now be accomplished with a simple mouse click. No movement is required.
To help address the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle, the German Initiative New Quality of Work developed a brochure to offer advice to workers who spend much of the day sitting for long stretches of time, to help get them up and moving - often. Basic information is given on how to incorporate appropriate work organization into the office workplace design including "dynamic" furniture to make it more motion-friendly. It provides guidance on how workers can alternate work postures, and offers dynamic solutions for frequent movement to help workers stay healthy.
You can download the brochure Up and down, up and down from Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).
Over 200 people from every province and territory in Canada gathered in Gatineau this month at CCOHS' national Forum III: Leading Workplace Change. They gained insights and information from leading speakers and experts, shared their collective experience and recommended solutions on a variety of workplace health and safety issues.
If you missed this event, you don't have to miss out. Selected sessions are now available for on-demand viewing. You can purchase any of these recorded sessions as a webcast and see a video of the speakers along with their slides, all synchronized to their presentation. Included is the ability to download a PDF of the presentation slides.
The following Forum sessions are available as webcasts:
Leading @ the Speed of Change - Jim Clemmer, bestselling author and international improvement leader
Leadership Within the System - Dr. Julian Barling, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology, School of Business, Queen's University
Employer and Labour Perspectives on Leadership and Responsibility - Cathy Walker, Former National Health and Safety Director of the Canadian Auto Workers Union and Frank Saunders, Vice President, Nuclear Oversight and Regulatory Affairs, Bruce Power
Implementing Successful Participatory Ergonomic Programs: Opportunities and Challenges - Dr. Nancy Theberge, Professor in the Departments of Kinesiology and Sociology at the University of Waterloo and Case Studies wtih Dan Dubblestyne, The Woodbridge Group and Wyatt Clark, Chrysler Canada/CAW
Towards a National Prevention Strategy for Workplace Violence in Canada - Glenn French, President of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence and Anthony Pizzino, National Director of Research, Job Evaluation and Health and Safety for the Canadian Union of Public Employees
Click here for further details and how to order the webcasts.
It's that time of year again when we check in with you to see how we're doing. In addition to the recent facelift, we made improvements to the Report based on feedback we received from our readers. The Report is now emailed to more than 27,000 every month to readers in more than 110 countries around the world.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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