The future of a healthy workforce: reducing sedentary behaviour

24 November 2016

What is sedentary behaviour? You might have heard the term before, and we’re probably all guilty of it. Here we look at what it means, why it’s a problem and what you can do to live a less sedentary lifestyle.

A man leaning back in his chair looking at his glasses

About sedentary behaviour

Any time that you spend lying down or sitting is being sedentary. Aside from watching TV, playing video games and reading, one of the other big sedentary behaviours is the time we spend on screens – laptops, computers, phones and tablets. Driving is another one.

While it’s really important to take time to relax and rest, too much sitting and lying down is bad for your health.

In 2011, the UK physical activity level guidelines were updated to encourage people to do more activity. For adults, they recommend you do 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination of both. However, for the first time ever the guidelines made specific reference to sitting less by watching less TV, spending less time glued to the sofa and powering down the PC. We should also break up sitting time we can’t avoid, for example, if you have to sit at a desk for work.

Why is sitting bad for my health?

The evidence that sitting is bad for you goes back to at least the 1950s when a study was done comparing bus drivers (who sit) with bus conductors (who stand). This study showed that the bus drivers had around twice the risk of developing heart disease compared to the bus conductors.

Since then, long amounts of time spent sitting have not only been linked to problems with blood glucose control, but also a sharp reduction in the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. This enzyme breaks down blood fats and makes them available as a fuel to your muscles. This reduction in enzyme activity leads to raised levels of triglycerides and fats in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Have a look at this interactive map that shows the risks of being sedentary to your health. 

Does exercise cancel out the effects of sitting?

A recent meta-analysis (a review of lots of studies) looked at whether physical activity can off-set the negative effects of sitting. It found that at least one hour of activity is needed to offset harmful effects of sitting at a desk for eight hours. This level of daily physical activity is well above the recommended UK guidelines.

The review also found that the risk of dying increases among desk-based workers who sit for eight hours a day and do low amounts of exercise. The evidence indicated that high levels of physical activity, equivalent to 60 to 75 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per day, seem to cancel out the increased risks associated with total sitting time.

The bad news is that this physical activity doesn’t appear to get rid of the risk associated with watching TV – watch out for an upcoming blog on this!

In 2015, Public Health England advised that office workers should aim for two hours of standing and light activity (light walking) during working hours, eventually progressing to four hours a day. They also suggested that companies should be encouraging their employees to watch less TV!

How can I be less sedentary?

To achieve a less sedentary working day, Public Health England recommends standing-based work, the use of a sit–stand desk or taking short active standing breaks.

So in the office, you could:

  • set reminders on your phone or calendar to take a break every 30 minutes
  • stand up whenever you make or receive a phone call
  • encourage your colleagues to have walking meetings
  • consider sweatworking

If you can’t leave the office to go to the gym, you can always bring the gym to you with our work-out at work programme – lots of little ways you can burn more calories throughout your day.

When you’re at home watching TV, think about how you could be active and try our ad break workout. Yes, we know you all probably only watch on-demand and can’t remember the last time you saw an advert, but this is the joy of the pause button!

If you have a job which involves driving, here are some tips that may help.

So what’s the key message? That 30-minute run or hour in the gym is important but what you do in the remaining time you’re not asleep is equally vital. Just a few small changes, which mean you sit less, sustained over time will greatly benefit your health.

Written while standing.

And for some more final tips, here is one of my favourite videos about this subject.


Health Adviser at Bupa UK

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