October 20, 2015 . Workplace

The Workstation: Could it be the Most Important Factor in Your Health at Work?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve reviewed the fact base around sitting and inactivity, discussed its negative effects on health, and most recently, presented ways that organizations can create healthier, more active workplaces.

As our previous post pointed out, there are many ways to promote movement at work. Incorporating office amenities such as walkable hallways, standing meetings, or exercise facilities can “design-in” opportunities for movement, express brand identity and values, and assist in strategic efforts such as recruitment and retention of talent.

But as widely as individual habits and preferences vary, so will the utilization of provided amenities. And when the average worker today spends 5 hours and 41 minutes per day sitting at their desk 1, the employee workstation could be the most important factor in a healthy workplace.

The Way to Better Health is NEAT

The crucial fact here is that everyone in a typical office environment spends the bulk of their day at their workstation-- but not everyone can or will use the gym facilities, walkable corridors, or stairs.

As we’ve discussed, the health research continues to emphasize that movement throughout the day -- not exclusively standing or sitting -- is likely the key to staving off chronic disease and weight gain. And while exercise is an important aspect of a healthy daily routine, so is physical activity throughout the day.

Termed “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis” or NEAT among physiology researchers, NEAT refers to the energy expended during physical activity other than exercise and includes everything from chewing gum, pacing on a phone call, or strolling to the next meeting. 2

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Somewhat surprisingly, NEAT activities can be an important source of caloric burn. Studies have shown that calories burned from these activities can range from 300 to as much as 2,000 calories per day. NEAT also stimulates your metabolism just enough to prevent the harmful metabolic effects of inactivity. A recent study published in the American Journal of Medicine indicated that fidgeting while you work may help offset risk factors associated with sitting for hours at a time. 3

Small Choices Add Up

Skeptical that simply fidgeting, walking and chewing gum can have much of an impact on your health? The below table compares calories burned for a 150 pound individual across a range of activities:

In 1 hour, a 150 pound individual burns approximately the following calories: 4
Sitting 102
Standing, light work 157
Slow walking, <2 mph 136
Moderate walking, 3 mph 225
Brisk walking, 3.5 mph 259
Mowing the lawn 375
Golfing (carrying clubs, 9 holes) 360
Running (10 min mile pace) 682

Over time, seemingly inconsequential choices add up. Various studies have demonstrated that seated desk jobs are associated with weight gain; for instance, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine reported that in an eight month study of call-center employees, 68% of those surveyed gained roughly a pound per month over the course of the study. 5

How does this happen? Diet and exercise are important factors, but NEAT is also part of the equation. In the case of the 150 pound individual above, three hours of sitting in one day amounts to 306 calories burned, while standing for three hours equals 471. A difference of 156 calories may not seem significant, however over the course of a year could add up to 16 pounds lost!

Benefits of the Adjustable Workstation

The ability to shift, change and fine-tune working posture throughout the day may afford some of the greatest health benefits to those who spend their days at a desk. So while Fitbits and iWatches measure activity in terms of steps taken or stairs climbed, an adjustable desk completes the picture by enabling the small-scale movements that are beneficial for health but perhaps don’t quite register as walking or even “exercise.” 6

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Reduced Sitting Time

Multiple small scale studies demonstrate that introducing height adjustable desks can successfully reduce sitting time during the workday by an hour or more each day.

Another study found that replacing sitting with standing for just two hours per day has a positive effect on these metabolic factors, which have been linked to heart disease and diabetes risks. 7 With fewer hours in an inactive state, office workers can enjoy the benefits of more NEAT: increased caloric burn and healthier blood sugar and fat levels, which in turn may lower chronic disease risk.

Musculoskeletal Benefits

Standing and walking are load-bearing activities, which promote healthy bone density and engages muscles and tendons. They also promote blood flow and circulation which benefit the mind as well as the body.

Alternatively, sitting for hours pushes places strain on the neck, shoulders and spine, producing a characteristic “C-shape” that heightens lower back pain, produces headaches and causes muscle strain. Over time, spinal discs can become unevenly compressed, and collagen can build up around supporting tendons and ligaments. 8

Ergonomic Benefits

Optimal desk height and ergonomic arrangements vary greatly between individual stature and body types. Adjustable worksurfaces move beyond a “one-size-fits-all” model and provide beneficial ergonomic adjustment for all body types. To ensure that height adjustable worksurfaces can serve the majority of individuals in sitting, standing and anything in between, the worksurface height should adjust from 22 to 48 inches, which design standards calculate will serve from the 5th percentile female to 95th percentile male height range. 9

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Benefits for Mood and Focus

In one seven-week study of standing desk use, participants reported more vigor, energy, focus, and happiness and less depression and fatigue. When they went back to their traditional fixed, seated desks, their overall mood returned to baseline levels. 10

Key Factors for the Workstation

Promoting behavior change is one thing; successfully implementing it is another. For best results we recommend the following workstation attributes:

Electric Height Adjustability

In a study sponsored by the Australian Heart Foundation, participants reported that ease of workstation adjustment was rated among the most important factors when transitioning to a height adjustable workstation. 11 An electric-adjustable workstation enables the user to move seamlessly between sitting, standing and perching positions at the push of a button, which increases convenience and likelihood of use compared to a crank-adjustable, notch, or fixed height standing desk.

Chairs to Support Postural Variety

Traditional task chairs are designed for optimal comfort during periods of prolonged sitting, but a 2001 study of deskbound office workers found that the average person made 53 changes to his or her torso position in an hour. 12 So while numerous ergonomic interventions -- such as task chairs -- are available for the traditional workstation, it is also very difficult to maintain good seated posture over the course of many hours.

For this reason, we recommend exploring the variety of non-traditional seating options that are now available; these include “perches” or standing aids, adjustable stools, exercise balls and other creative interventions.

Adjustable Monitors and Adequate Cable Management

When moving between sitting, standing and everything in-between, technology will need to follow. Adjustable monitors are important to ensuring that proper ergonomic positioning can be achieved at any height, and adequate length cabling is needed to permit full-height adjustment.

Conclusion

Activities that contribute to NEAT are all around us; however, an organization that is serious about promoting a healthier, more engaging workplace shouldn’t leave the matter to chance.

Replacing a traditional static height desk with a height-adjustable workstation delivers tangible benefits to individual employees; by enabling choice over working posture and supporting movement throughout the day, employees are given more control over their daily habits and, by proxy, long term health.

Next week we will review a variety of workstation features and creative seating options to promote more activity at the workstation level. Stay tuned.

Sources:

1“Office workers spend too much time at their desks, experts say” Science Daily 2012

2“Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon of Societal Weight Gain” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2006

3“Sitting Time, Fidgeting, and All-Cause Mortality in the UK Women’s Cohort Study,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2015

4Fit-O-Meter Fitness and Exercise Calorie Counter, WebMD

5“Physical activity, weight gain and occupational health among call centre employees” Oxford Journal of Occupational Medicine 2007

6“Reducing Occupational Sitting Time and Improving Worker Health: The Take-a-Stand Project.” Center for Disease Control, 2011

7“Standing for two hours a day may benefit heart health, study finds” BMJ, 2015

8The Health Hazards of Sitting, Washington Post 2014

9ANSI/BIFMA HFES Standard 2013

10Reducing Occupational Sitting Time and Improving Worker Health: The Take-a-Stand Project, 2011

11“The Stand at Work Study” University of Sydney and Australian Heart Foundation

12Interview with Dr. Galen Cranz, Body Conscious Design 2008

 

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