Sitting is the new smoking: How to fit activity into your workday

The prevalence of sitting jobs has risen 83 percent in the U.S. since 1950, according to the American Heart Association. The result? Employees are spending a lot more time being sedentary each day.

You may think that all of those hours you spend sitting at your desk are unhealthy. And they are — sitting for more than three to four hours a day may take valuable years off of your life.

Research is clear that sitting for long periods of time each day over many years can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, higher levels of stress, as well as neck and lower-back pain.

Smart Business spoke with Dr. William Shrank, chief medical officer at UPMC Health Plan, to learn more about what many experts are calling, “sitting is the new smoking.”

What are the benefits of standing?

Simply standing more each day provides overall health benefits and increases work productivity among employees. For example, research shows that you burn 30 percent more calories when you’re standing than when you’re sitting.

Standing more each day can also help improve posture, increase blood flow, rev your metabolism, and increase your energy and alertness.

How can employers encourage some small moves for big benefits?

Here are some quick and easy changes employees can make at work to improve their health and productivity — starting today:

  • Go vertical: Take the stairs instead of the elevator as you enter and exit the office each day and get in the habit of walking up the escalator instead of standing.
  • Take frequent detours: Take an extra lap or two around the office on your way to the restroom, coffee pot or printer.
  • Communicate like it’s 1989: Instead of sending emails to your co-workers, walk to their desks on a regular basis.
  • Make it automatic: Find an app for your phone or computer that prompts you to get up from your chair every 30 minutes and move around.
  • Track your steps: Fitness trackers or basic pedometers measure the amount of steps you take each day. Keep a log of your steps and push yourself to get a few extra steps each day.
  • Take breaks: Get in the habit of taking micro-breaks, such as standing while talking on the phone. Better yet, make it a point to walk for at least 10 minutes every day at lunch time.
  • Sit up straight: Proper posture while sitting is important for your overall musculature. Check your posture and remember to roll back your shoulders, squeeze your shoulder blades together, engage your core and straighten your back.
  • Toss it farther away: Move your trash or recycling bin away from your desk so you have to take a few extra steps.
  • Have mobile meetings: Instead of sitting in a conference room for a 30-minute meeting with colleagues, turn it into a walking meeting.
  • Give up your seat: Choose to stand on public transportation rather than sit.

What are other ways to encourage less sitting and more activity, long term?

Corporate wellness programs help employees to start fitting more activity into their workday. And it’s important to keep that momentum going over weeks, months and years.

One key is for employees to tap into their essential motivation for wanting to get more active. It’s often not enough to simply say that you should exercise more, or should burn more calories or should get a standing desk. Many employees need more tangible and basic reasons, such as wanting more energy or focus during their workday. Or perhaps they want to lose five pounds in the next month or want to be able to keep up with their kids or grandkids at the park.

For extra motivation to help employees to get more active each day, check with your health care plan to see if they offer health coaches that will help to guide your staff and stay on track with their activity goals. These health coaches can provide extra motivation for you to get up and go.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan