You’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking” — the looming health risk in the computer age. A proliferation of studies over the past decade has linked prolonged stretches of sedentariness to an uptick in the risk of diabetes, heart disease, even cancer.
A consensus statement published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine recommended that people in desk jobs aim initially for two hours of standing or light walking each day, gradually building to four hours of nonsedentary activity during the day.
If those targets seem extreme, take heart. They’re meant to be accumulated over the course of 16 waking hours, says the statement’s lead author, John Buckley, a professor of applied exercise science at Britain’s University of Chester and chair of the International Council of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation. If you’re starting from zero, aim to reach the two-hour goal over the course of a month and then move on to the four-hour target over the next three to four months.
Bouts of activity can be short. If you’re just standing, you need to do so for five or more minutes at a time, says Buckley, but if you’re moving, two minutes is enough to give benefits.
Still, the question remains: How do you fit that many hours of non-sitting into a desk job?
Ideally, you should avoid sitting for more than half an hour at a time, and one simple way to do this is to set a timer that reminds you to stand up and move a little every 30 minutes, says Neville Owen, head of the Behavioural Epidemiology lab at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia.
These bouts of exercise don’t need to disrupt your work, says John Thyfault, an associate professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, who has studied the physiology of sedentary behavior. If you make a habit of using a printer in another room or the restroom on a different floor, you’ll automatically incorporate some motion into your day.
“I treat myself with an afternoon coffee at a shop quite a long way from my office,” Thyfault says. When you need to chat with a co-worker, consider taking a walk together.
When I’m writing (or procrastinating from writing), I like to take a quick dance break once in a while. My little one-song dance parties don’t just energize me, they also can reboot my brain, and they’re fun, not a chore. This strategy works in my home office, but it might be embarrassing if you work in an office with other people — unless you rally your colleagues to join. In an episode of the television show “30 Rock,” Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, encourages her staff to take one-minute dance breaks.
Social support from your co-workers is key, Buckley says: “Do not try and do this on your own, as many of your work colleagues may think you’re a freak.” Instead, try to engage key workers or office leaders so that physical activity becomes a joint venture. One office leader making active breaks a habit can have a ripple effect.
This spring, I spent a month working as a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. One day, anthropologist Paula Sabloff invited me to join her daily stair walk. The ritual began, she told me, shortly after her arrival at the institute in 2009, when she found herself missing her walk up the five flights of stairs to her previous office in Philadelphia. Because SFI is located in a one-story building, she decided to make a few trips up and down the outdoor stairs between the campus’s lower parking lot and the main building. As a bonus, the Santa Fe stairs come with a view and the invigorating aroma of pine trees.
Sabloff makes six trips up and down the staircase every morning at 10:30, with whoever will join her. She has made a habit of inviting more junior post-docs to take part, and when she hired two young men to help her on an archaeological project, she invited them, too. The ritual established a social rapport that benefited their relationship, she says
Like several others at SFI, Sabloff works at a sit-stand desk. Although hers is designed to move up and down with the touch of a button, you don’t need an expensive desk to alternate between sitting and standing. During my stay at the institute, I attached an Ergotron Work-Fit mount to my standard-issue desk so that I could use my laptop from either a sitting or a standing position. The device, one of many available to convert traditional desks into standing ones, was easy to install and remove, and with a retail price of less than $300, it was more affordable than the motorized sit-stand desk I use at home.
I mostly stand, but sometimes I need to sit down, and a few months ago, I bought a Kore office wobble chair in hopes of finding a more active way to sit. The chair allows fidgeters like me to rock and move while seated. I found the seat comfortable, but its selling point — that it requires some muscle activation to keep steady — was its downfall for me. The position I naturally fell into while using it exacerbated an old hamstring injury.
During my stay at SFI, I tried out a Swopper, another office chair designed to allow for “active” sitting. This one suited me perfectly. The seat rests on a giant spring that allows you to bounce in a motion that stretches and soothes the back, and it tilts backward and forward, allowing lots of rocking and swaying without putting pressure on my testy leg.
Yet just because the Swopper allows motion doesn’t mean you’ll actually move. I observed several of my colleagues testing the chair, and they seemed to follow a similar pattern. They’d try out the bouncy spring, then settle into a static position that left them nearly as sedentary as they’d be on a regular chair. It seems that even a motion-enabled chair still requires some deliberate effort, and Thyfault says that because the energy it takes to wiggle a chair is probably low, it’s better to focus on steps and standing.
Movement has mental benefits, too. In experiments Owen conducted in Australia, people reported feeling tired and irritable at the end of days with prolonged sitting. But on days when people had been asked to stand up regularly and do some simple exercises, they reported less fatigue and greater mental alertness, Owen says. There’s also some evidence that exercise breaks improve performance and cognitive function, Thyfault says.
While a lot has been made of the potential for many hours of sitting to cancel out the benefits of a single daily bout of exercise, Thyfault says, this doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to go to the gym or spend your lunch hour running.
“One bout of exercise per day still has huge benefits,” he says. Just don’t use that one session as an excuse to rest on your duff the rest of the day.