Spend most of your day sat down? It might be as bad for you as smoking

Kevin Chapman
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Is this you at work? Wistful, pensive, prostrate. (Source: Getty)

“Sitting is the smoking of our generation,” you may have heard.

It’s a maxim touted by health experts and the press alike, borne from our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. But why is it that, especially in London offices, many of us remain so inactive for hours at a time?

A new report commissioned by Lendlease and LCR has revealed that over three quarters of all workers regularly sit in one place for more than an hour at a time, with more than half doing so every day of their working week. Compounding the issue, the research also found that more than a third of workers eat lunch at their desk – “al desko” – four or more times a week, while a quarter never use the stairs at work at all.

Sedentary working spans meetings and meal times and, as the report identifies, this behaviour is hardwired into our office routines and culture. We know, however, that there is an appetite for change.

Ch-ch-changes

More than half of workers surveyed said they would change their working habits if they were informed that just two minutes of activity every hour is enough to undo the long-term health damage of prolonged sitting at work.

To implement lasting change, we need to address the mindset that standing during long meetings is considered odd, that eating at our desks is a sign of commitment, and that walking meetings should be left to actors in the West Wing.

The report reveals a few truths that can help us make our workplaces more active. But to make it work, the whole office needs to be involved, from management to employees, and even the furniture.

Culture shock

When it comes to increasing our movement at work, the majority of us are remaining seated solely because we believe our seniors, colleagues or clients would find more active behaviour strange. Imaginary or not, a change in this perception must be led from the top.

Our study found that more than half of employees think initiatives implemented by senior management would be the most effective way of bringing about change. Outdoor space, rooftop terraces, and stand up desks promote activity at work, but if they are not part of an officially reinforced and supported culture, most of us will continue to remain seated.

Armchair critic

However, change falls not on the shoulders of senior leaders alone. We care what our colleagues think too. Trying a weekly competition using activity trackers has been identified as a winner. Within our own business we’ve found that Fitbits are great at reminding us to keep moving.

The physical workplace provides a huge opportunity for organisational change. A quarter of staff say that their workplaces do not include space to accommodate movement. So there is definitely an opportunity for businesses to support more active behaviour with a few simple furniture changes.

But while replacing sitting time with standing is a step in the right direction, it’s introducing movement within the work day that will drive real health benefits. This is where the concept of Activity Based Working – creating flexible workspaces designed to facilitate individual tasks at work – can also help.

A focus on activity specific working can encourage staff to move to locations within the office that best suit the task at hand, rather than rely on a single desk all day long. This in turn leads to a dramatic increase in day-to-day movement, has been shown to improve performance, and allows businesses to use their office space more efficiently.

Kevin Chapman is UK head of offices at Lendlease.

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