Not so long ago, the Occupational Health and Safety people performed their annual inspection of the safety imperfections of my workspace. Armed with clipboards, they flicked the lights on and off, checked that the bookcases were still attached to the walls, and tsk’d at the four electrical cords plugged into one surge protector.
They spent about five minutes in my office, then moved on.
The irony of it.
Oh, they ensured I won’t be buried under a pile of dictionaries and style guides in the event of an earthquake. They made a note to get someone in to fix the ceiling light. They even put an order in for a second surge protector, thereby keeping my computer, data and the rest of the building’s electrical supply safe.
But aside from asking if I needed a pedestal for my computer monitor, they ignored the biggest occupational health and safety risk associated with the work I do. They made no mention nor lifted a single eyebrow about how, for much of each day, I court early death.
Death by sitting.
Sitting for extended periods, as I and so many others do for work, is, according to a number of studies published in recent years, a sedentary journey straight to health problems. Whether it is done at a desk, in a car, in front of a computer screen or slumped before a television, sitting confounds all sorts of vital systems within the body.
Sitting increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, even depression. The risks accumulate after just two to four hours of sedentary inactivity each day, and compound with each additional hour.
Reading this, while you linger — sitting — at your desk or breakfast table, you might feel a certain superiority. You venture out onto Victoria’s trails and byways to run three or four times each week, you visit the gym regularly, you eat your locally produced organic veggies. Surely these dismal proclamations don’t apply to your active, fit, toned body.
Not so fast! A study out of Ontario, which followed more than 17,000 Canadians for 12 years, found the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died — no matter how much they exercised, how old they were or how much they weighed.
Other scientists have found that a gene essential to keeping our heart and veins healthy is suppressed after just a few hours of sitting. More worrisome is the discovery that exercise does not kickstart the gene if you’ve been inactive most of the day.
Lack of exercise for many of us is a problem. But too much sitting, in and of itself, is equally problematic.
Sitting for extended periods, simply, plainly, might eventually kill you.
And it appears people who exercise regularly sit just as much as couch potatoes do. A 2012 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity reports that even fit people spend almost 10 hours each day sitting — on par with their less-exercise-inclined peers.
Scientists are still trying to determine the exact mechanisms that make prolonged sitting so dangerous to our health. One possibility is that holding still and relaxing while sitting dampens the automatic, isometric contractions within our bodies’ core muscles, and those contractions are key to stimulating and maintaining health-promoting processes that keep the chronic diseases at bay.
While the researchers delve into that question, I’m delving into effective ways to do my job that don’t require sitting. I’ve tried the kneeling chair. I’ve tried standing at my desk and balancing my keyboard on a pedestal, I’ve tried kneeling on the floor, I’ve tried squatting. I use the wiggle seat and the ball (but not at the same time), which work fine provided you maintain excellent posture.
I’m now considering investing in an adjustable workstation that changes from a desk to a podium and back with a few handcranks, and even a desk-compatible exercise bike. Some fancy adapters might even allow me to power my computer by pedalling.
Until then, I get up and move as much as possible.
Feel free to join me.