Over the last several decades, American workers have shifted from physically active manufacturing jobs to more office-based, sedentary ones. Since the 1950s, there has been a 60% reduction in the percentage of individuals who have occupations that require moderate to intense physical activity, explains Nico Pronk, vice president for health management at HealthPartners.

"Because we sit more today than we did 50 years ago, the total reduction in energy expenditure is about 100 calories per day," Pronk says. This contributes to significant proportional increases in weight gain among today's workers, adds Pronk, who is also the Health Science Officer at HealthPartners.

The average human spends upwards of nine hours a day sitting - whether at work, in the car or at home. The cumulative effect of inactivity increases risks for a wide range of medical conditions.

In fact, sitting at a desk all day is equivalent to smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day in terms of the risk factor for chronic disease, according to Dr. Gail Christopher, DN, vice president of program strategy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

"I encourage each and every one of you to build movement into every hour of your day at some level," she told attendees this fall at EBN's annual Benefits Forum & Expo in Phoenix.

At Christopher's office, employees have stand-up meetings and focus on walking while talking. Christopher herself has replaced her sit-down desk with one where she stands to work.

Sit-stand workstations create movement and energy for employees who sit in front of a computer for long hours, such as many knowledge workers and call center employees.

Standing requires the human body to continually contract muscles to keep balance, which benefits a person's metabolic profile. When employees can work while standing still, devices like the Ergotron WorkFit Sit-Stand Workstations force people out of a sedentary status.

"The longer you sit, the higher your risk," says Pronk. "The idea behind these sit-stand devices is to break up the time that people are actually sedentary."

A 2011 study on sit-stand devices in the workplace showed a 224% (66 minutes per day) reduction in time spent sitting among employees with sedentary jobs at HealthPartners' health promotion department in Minneapolis, Minn.

The Take-a-Stand Project also found employees using the devices reduced upper back and neck pain by 54% and had improved mood states. Furthermore, removing the devices largely dissolved these improvements within two weeks.

Reducing chronic back and neck pain, in particular, could save money on health claims and improve productivity. As the number one cause of lost workdays and the second most common cause of disability in the United States, these two chronic problems cost the health care system $100 billion annually.

After seven weeks in the project, employees with sit-stand workstations reported feeling more comfortable (87%), energized (87%), healthier (75%), more focused (71%), more productive (66%) and happier (62%).

 

Less sitting, better health

Less sitting time could even reduce the likelihood employees would have metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol or hypertension. Even cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes are related to prolonged sitting time. While sit-stand devices could reverse annual trend for chronic diseases, more research is needed.

HealthPartners introduced sit-stand devices into its insurance administrative offices over two years ago. The workstations have spread across the company, with utilization approaching 20% of employees, and leaders are looking to introduce the unique desks to other segments of their workforce.

"We're not [implementing this program] driven by a specific ROI that we expect to see from a claims perspective. Part of the big driver for us is to encourage a culture of wellness in our organization," explains Calvin Allen, senior vice president of strategic planning and human resources at HealthPartners.

Health leaders at the company hope movement during the workday encourages healthy behavior outside the office. When workers leave work less fatigued, they can bring well- being and energy into their family and home life, Allen says.

The sit-stand workstations are "just one of the strategies we have put in place to help drive resiliency in the organization, to demonstrate to employees that we care about their well-being and to help people think about staying active even during the middle of the day," he adds.

For example, a group of 20 employee volunteers known as the CIA (Committee for Increased Activity) evaluates company health assessment results to decide where to target wellness activity.

The group comes up with fun activities to engage employees like promoting participation in the Twin Cities 5K or spurring wellness competition with employees at other companies in their community or market space.

The CIA's subgroup, the IRS (Initiatives that Reduce Stress), brings in chair massages periodically for employees and finds other initiatives to build a work environment where living healthy is easy, not obstructed.

 

Paying biggest challenge

The sit-stand workstations are one such tool that "makes movement fun and easy," says Allen.

He concedes that though the upfront cost may not be "astronomical," paying for the workstations is the biggest challenge for employers. Still, he believes innovative and ergonomic workstations are the future for all companies.

"It takes a leadership team that is committed to well-being to go down that path," Allen says. "Because people spend so much of their day working, organizations will have to get creative on how to make movement, activity and healthy eating easier and fun."

Pronk agrees, suggesting the next stage for sit-stand devices are tables and conference rooms.

Whatever the solution or technology, Allen believes "worksites will be much more flexible than what we have today" to curb escalating obesity rates and chronic disease risks.

Before purchasing new technology, employees can determine how long they sit each day with Ergotron's online Sitting-Time Calculator at sittingtime.juststand.org. The tool calculates the comprehensive time an average person sits throughout a typical day and gives tips on how to reduce associated risks.

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