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Breaking up sitting time - encouraging employees to move more during the work day

By Valerie Gladwell | Oct 5, 2020

I am Doctor Valerie Gladwell, and I work in the School of Sport Rehabilitation and Exercise sciences at the University of Essex. In this blog I will concentrate on health and wellbeing in the workplace (whether that be an office or your home), focusing on physical health and how our work-life impacts on this.

I am sure that you are aware that we should all be doing a certain amount of physical activity for our health.  The Department of Health guidelines currently recommend that we do 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of more intense vigorous intensity exercise.

Additionally, as part of these guidelines it recommends that we should also do two or more strengthening type training sessions per week, be active every day and reduce our sitting time.

To enhance our physical health further we should consider ensuring that we have good flexibility and balance, as these contribute to how well and easy it is to perform physical activity.

The challenges of an office environment

Unfortunately, if we work within an office type environment (or equivalent  set up at home during the Covid-19 pandemic) we can spend more than 8 hours sitting at a desk at work and then even more time when we are not working. That’s a lot of sitting and spending time in a set position.

If we spend lots of time in one position, this can lead to a bad posture (especially if we haven’t got our work-station set up as it should be), which may lead to injuries like repetitive strain injury and back pain. Back pain is one of the common reasons that people take time off work.

If you're staying in one position, it's likely to have an effect on posture and even if you don’t get back pain, your muscles will be in one position and as humans we are not designed to stay in that position. We therefore should be considering breaking up any sitting time as much as possible.

The problem with muscles in one position is they tend to align to that new position and as a result the muscles shorten to accommodate the position, this means that we become less flexible.

If we're less flexible it is likely to change our body’s movement capability. Muscles that can be greatly affected from long periods of time sitting in one position are your hip flexors at the top of the front of your legs and your hamstrings (at the back of your legs). With shorter hip flexors and hamstrings your ability to stride out during walking is likely to reduce. This will be even more important if you are trying to move at any speed e.g. you start running for a bus, or try and play sports.

Furthermore, our ankles tend to remain in one position when we are sedentary. This may affect ankle movement which is very important for balance.

If we are not able to balance correctly we may trip or fall; even if the fall is not a bad one this will knock our confidence of doing more physical activity. Therefore, balance and flexibility are really important to support our physical activity.

It is a vicious circle - if we spend too much time sitting, we will be less likely to move around and as a result spend more time sitting, thereby reducing our flexibility and balance. This will then impact on our strength. Moving helps us maintain some muscle definition and tone.

What happens in our body

As an example - do you know anyone who has broken their leg? I did in 2015 and it was put in a cast for 6 weeks. You could see a very big difference in size between my right leg that was broken and my left when the cast was removed.

If over time you spend a lot of time sitting, that's what's going on inside our bodies. You probably can't see it because the left and the right are doing the same thing but the muscle mass is reducing.

Furthermore, unfortunately, as we age, muscle mass naturally declines and so moving well becomes even more important (we are talking about from our 30s here).

So if we spend a lot of time sitting we can lose muscle, flexibility and balance and this will impact on our quality of mobility, with it becoming more difficult to do the movement patterns we were used to doing. We might not notice this much as it happens slowly over time.

Additionally, moving more throughout the day can help your heart and your blood, specifically blood flow. If you think about travelling on a plane, it is suggested that you move during the flight.

Every day during work time you could spend up to 8 hours hardly moving - not great for that blood flow.

Interestingly when we did a study to examine breaking up sitting time and looking at blood flow we found that doing exercises on our legs also helps increase the blood flow in the arms. Others have also found it can help blood flow to the brain and this blood flow helps with our thinking and cognitive function.

Things we can do to help employees

One of the things we can do about this is to think about how we might break up our sitting time during the working day. You’ve all heard about simple things like going to the water filter, standing up when you are on the phone and walking meetings. These are really useful to incorporate into your working day and ensuring you do them regularly (as long as it is not to get the snacks when employees are working at home!).

You could also think of some simple things to get your employees to do like getting up from the work desk and just doing some basic exercises around flexibility, balance and strengthening that I discussed above (there are plenty of video examples on this platform if you would like some inspiration).

It won’t necessarily make you fitter in the traditional sense but it will enable your body to be more physically active.

Furthermore, you are likely to have more energy, so rather than at the end of the work day flopping on the sofa you might have energy to go for a walk, do an exercise class or play sport and your muscles will be in a better condition to do this with less likelihood of injury.

These activities may also assist you to become more social which we know is also another important part of wellbeing.

To sum up

So undertaking exercises throughout the day will break up the sitting period, help with blood flow, help keep our muscles toned and enable us to retain our balance and flexibility.

Keep Fit Eat Fit have a really useful exercise resource bank but sometimes the hardest thing is to remember to do them (when you are head down in your work). However, Keep Fit Eat Fit can help to give your employees regular cues as to when to do this.

If we get moving more during the day, it may help us to be more physically fit, but in addition there will be more blood flow to your brain, making it more efficient - meaning we can get the job done just a little bit quicker.

Valerie Gladwell

Valerie Gladwell

I am the Director of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Suffolk, and previously I was a senior lecturer and wellbeing physiologist at the University of Essex, with a particular focus on workplace wellbeing. I received the English Cricket Board Coach Award, part of the University's team that was awarded for the University of Essex Highly Commended for Workplace Health for the Business in the Community (East of England).