Sedentary office workers, including busy HR practitioners, may want to stand up to absorb some provocative news published in the online medical journal BMJ Open: Most Americans could live two years longer on average if they’d spend less than three hours a day sitting.

The study’s lead author didn’t mince words when describing the seriousness of this issue. “Sitting is a dangerous risk factor for early death, on par with smoking and being obese,” Peter Katzmarzyk, a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, recently told USA Today.

His findings are considered the latest in a series of studies linking excessive sitting to increased risks for developing diabetes, as well as dying from cancer, heart disease and stroke. The research examined government data showing nearly half the nation saying that they sit more than six hours a day, which, if sliced in half, could raise the average U.S. life expectancy to 80.5 years from 78.5 years.

The trouble with most work environments is that it’s extremely difficult to avoid sitting, explains Ronald H. Cox, Ph.d, a kinesiology and health associate professor at Oxford, Ohio-based Miami University. “We have noted in our experience, half-jokingly, that interior designers may be the secret to promoting a healthier population,” he quips. “However, finding a way to promote some activity in the workplace with the constraints imposed by space limitations is a formidable task.”

Frequent short breaks from sitting are associated with a more positive health outlook, says Cox, who adds that 30 minutes of recommended daily activity “isn’t enough to mitigate the deleterious effects of prolonged sitting… In short, it might not take a lot to interdict the sitting effect, but as of now we don’t know the specific behaviors or durations that will be effective.”

About three years ago, Cox and a colleague introduced 12 so-called active workstations outfitted with height-adjustable desks built over low-speed treadmills – 10 of which were donated for research use by office furniture maker Steelcase.

“I strongly believe that we’ve got to change our office environment, somehow, someway,” he said in a recent news release on the topic. “Sitting so much causes metabolic syndrome, which means fat starts depositing on your waist, your good HDL [high-density lipoprotein] cholesterol goes down, your blood pressure goes up and your blood glucose goes up. A little bit of activity seems to really be helpful in minimizing these effects.”

Michael Hain, who has performed more than 1,800 ergonomic evaluations, says the trick is to create an active work environment in any potentially sedentary setting. His recommendations include taking breaks about every 20 minutes so employees can stand, stretch or walk, as well as designating areas for the office printer and meetings to help get one’s blood circulating and stimulate muscles.

 “The most important piece of equipment in any office is the chair,” adds Hain, manager of health and safety for Enterprise Security & Privacy in Pasadena, Calif. He cautions that the most expensive chair isn’t necessarily going to work for all employees and that it’s good to offer a choice of four or five different chairs.

Hain says chairs should have the following features:

  1. Five free wheel casters
  2. Adjustable height
  3. Seat pan that moves in and out
  4. Back rest that leans to about 125 degrees
  5. Adjustable arm rest that raise, lower and move in and out
  6. Adjustable lumbar support

Bruce Shutan, a former EBN managing editor, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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