Middle-aged office workers are now as sedentary as pensioners, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that middle aged workers spend between 7 and 7.8 hours sitting each day. That compares to 7.4 hours of sedentary time for the over-75s.
The study, which drew on data from more than 14,000 people in Scotland, suggests that sedentary behaviour in the modern office is bigger concern than previously thought.
High levels of sedentary time - such as those detected in the study - increases the risk of an early death, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
Only the youngest group surveyed - 16 to 24-year-olds - are less sedentary than the over 75s on weekdays.
At the weekend, the situation reverses. Those aged 25 to 54 were the least sedentary, sitting for between 5.2 and 5.7 hours a day. The over 75s were the most sedentary, at 7.3 to 7.4 hours a day.
The findings from the University of Edinburgh's Physical Activity for Health Research Centre are published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
StepJockey talked to lead researcher Tessa Strain about the study and the implications of its findings.
SJ: Work seems to be getting more and more sedentary. What do you think are the factors driving that?
TS: Yes, it does seem like our working environments are encouraging us to spend long periods of time sitting down. I should say that our research is just from one snapshot in time (2012-14), so I can speak only anecdotally about the trends. But I know myself that it can be easier to email colleagues in neighbouring offices rather than walk over to speak to them, or it is not always acceptable to stand during a meeting. I think it would be great if we could change the culture in our offices, making it easier for people to break up their sitting time throughout the day.
SJ: It's interesting that male office workers are more sedentary than women. Is it clear why?
TS: Our results indicate that men of almost all ages, whether in work or not, report higher levels of daily sedentary time than women. I don’t have any conclusive reasons why this is, but I am aware this trend has been seen in some other studies. Amongst workers, this difference is about half an hour on average. Interestingly though, we found really substantial differences in the sedentary time between middle-aged men and women not in work (roughly 7 hours for men compared with 5-6 hours for women). We speculated that there may be different reasons for men and women not being in work and that these may affect sedentary time; childcare could be one of them.
SJ: Is sedentary behaviour a problem in of itself? Put another way, is it okay to sit for long periods during the working week if you are getting a good amount of exercise outside work?
TS: For most people, it is a problem. Current evidence suggests that the majority of people could reduce their risk of chronic disease by reducing and/or breaking up their sitting time. There is no question that exercise is good for you, but it seems that you have to be doing really quite substantial amounts before it cancels out any detrimental effects of sitting. We need more evidence before we can make firm conclusions though. The best advice is do both: sit less, move more.
SJ: Are there some forms of office work/roles that are more sedentary than others?
TS: Yes, definitely there are some jobs require one to be sedentary and others that are more flexible. As a researcher, I find some days are spent almost entirely sitting in front of my computer, while others are can involve very little sitting for example when I am teaching. I find I’m becoming better at identifying tasks can be done standing up, for example, when reading documents. There is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution given the variety of working environments, but raising awareness is the first step to try to make a change.
SJ: UK Public health has tended to focus on the outdoor environment when it comes to physical activity interventions. Do you think that needs rebalancing to focus on indoor spaces in light of this research?
TS: I’d like both! As I said before, I think it is really important that we all sit less and move more. However, I do wonder whether some people may find it more manageable to reduce their sitting time than become more active? With that in mind, I think it is important that we consider whether our indoor environments are encouraging us to make those healthy choices, and if not, whether we can do anything about it.
SJ: In the US, the Centres for Disease Control has launched Fitwel, a new health certification standard for office buildings. Do you think something similar should be launched in the UK?
TS: That’s really interesting, I wasn’t aware of that. It would be interesting to see whether that does make a difference to the indoor environment and people’s behaviour. I also wonder whether it is important to consider office culture: it is acceptable in my office to stand during a meeting or talk (I guess obviously as we are all researchers in this area!), but I have been to places where that hasn’t felt appropriate.
SJ: What practical tips would you offer ordinary office workers who wish to reduce their sitting time in their working day?
TS: I guess every workplace is slightly different but a few things I have tried include: identifying tasks (like reading documents, taking phone calls) that can be done standing, putting a reminder on my computer to stand up every hour, standing at the back of a talk, going on a walking meeting... In my office, we have a standing desk that people can use. I don’t find I like to use it for every task or for very long periods, but it is very nice to have the option.
SJ: Your research has been well covered in the press, with most headlines focusing on the finding that middle aged office workers appear as sedentary as pensioners. Are there other findings from your research you think should be highlighted?
TS: I personally am really interested by the differences between men and women who are not in work: middle aged men were reporting over an hour more daily sitting time than women who were not in work. I will be interested to see whether some of these findings are also evident in the results of studies that measure sitting time with a device as that is considered a more accurate measure of total sitting time than the answers to questionnaires (as used in my research).
SJ: If you were a large employer with thousands of staff working from offices, how worried would you be about sedentary behaviour and why? What advice would you give these employers?
TS: The results from the whole field of research into sedentary behaviour suggest that it is something we should be concerned about: it seems there are considerable health risks associated with the average levels that people are reporting. I am concerned because I do think our culture and our environment encourages us to sit and be inactive. I think large employers have quite an opportunity to help their staff change their behaviour like through offering standing desks, or making it acceptable to stand in meetings.