Sitting is Bad For You. So is Standing. What Now?

2015_6I don’t know if it’s just me, but every time I turn around I keep hearing that sitting is killing us. I hear it on the radio, I see it on the television and I read it online. What is going on? Let me give you a brief summary of the demise that comes from sitting.

Bad News About Sitting

In 2012 two studies were released on the problems of sitting too much (in Diabetologia, a journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, and in the British Journal of Sports Medicine). They conclude that lots of bad results come to those who sit too much.

In the Diabetologia review, 18 studies were included, with almost 800,000 participants. People with “highest sedentary behavior,” compared with those with those with lowest, were associated with:

  • 112% increase in the relative risk of diabetes
  • 147% increase in the relative risk of cardiovascular events (i.e. incidents that cause damage to heart muscle)
  • 90% increase in the risk of cardiovascular mortality (i.e. there is a 90% higher chance that the cause of mortality will be cardiovascular related)
  • 49% increase in the risk of all-cause mortality

Worse yet, they concluded that these results held even if the participants exercised regularly.

Every hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces life expectancy by 21.8 minutes

In the British Journal of Sports Medicine review, researchers analyzed data from the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study of almost 12,000 Australian adults. Using actuarial tables and adjusting for smoking, waist circumference, dietary quality, exercise habits and other variables, they were able to segregate the effect that the hours of sitting seemed to have on people’s life expectancy. They concluded that every hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces life expectancy by 21.8 minutes (for comparison, smoking a cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes, the authors said).

Again the results held even for people who exercise regularly.

Clearly if sitting is this bad we should be standing. Wait a minute; let’s take a look at what we know about long-term standing. Will standing up cure the ills of the same old sit?

Bad News About Standing

While studies of the grand scale sited above are sorely lacking (pun intended), there is evidence that long-term standing has its own set of concerns. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Science Blog post from December of 2014 provided a summary of their literature review that examined the risks of prolonged standing in the workplace. They conclude that that “there appears to be ample evidence that prolonged standing in the work place leads to a number of negative health outcomes.” Consistent findings include:

sports positions

Common postures in athletics

  • Low back pain
  • Physical fatigue
  • Muscle pain
  • Leg swelling
  • Tiredness
  • Body part discomfort (i.e. plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, varicose veins, knee and hip arthritis)
  • Cardiovascular problems (i.e. atherosclerosis)
  • Adverse pregnancy outcomes (i.e. pre-term delivery and reduced birth weight)

Most of these concerns appear to be centered on static or stationary standing, with little ability to walk or sit mixed in.

The Power of Position

For me, an ergonomist for 25 years, I wonder if there is a position of the body that lends itself to increased performance and safety. It seems that an obvious place to look is athletics.

Athletes share a concern for performance and safety. Taking a look at some common sports a trend can be observed; a slight bend in the hips, knees and elbows with elbows hanging naturally at the sides.

Looking at the question from a different angle, you might ask where does the body want to go in the absence of external or internal forces.

NASA might know something about this and they do. The neutral body posture shown here was created from measurements of 12 people in the microgravity environment onboard Skylab.

Neutral Body Position

The neutral body posture (NBP) shown here was created by NASA from measurements of 12 people in the microgravity environment onboard Skylab.

In the 1980s, NASA developed special standards, which included neutral body posture, to specify ways to design flight systems that support human health and safety.

In comparing the bad news of sitting (premature death) with the bad news of standing (body part discomfort), I lean towards sore feet.

That said, leaning may be a whole new angle on sitting or standing. Lean stands (also called sit-stand stools) are body supports that provide for a semi-seated and semi-standing posture. This position looks very similar to the position that athletes use for speed, power and safety and that astronauts in zero gravity sleep in.

Perhaps lean stands are a real option for traditional sitting or traditional standing tasks. Another great benefit of the lean-stand position is the ease with which you can move between using the support and standing and walking.

There is no one position that is good for a whole day, no matter how ergonomic or neutral. We have to move.

Movement is Life

There is no one position that is good for a whole day, no matter how ergonomic or neutral. We have to move.

Taking all of this together it becomes clear that being stationary, whether seated or standing, leads to health and safety concerns. In terms of both long-term life expectancy and short-term musculoskeletal health movement is needed.

I think that we all know this to some degree. All it takes is one long car ride or plane trip and you know that you crave to move.

On the other extreme we have seen that too much movement, especially when coupled with high forces and bad postures leads to workers’ compensation, group health and disability claims. We need a rhythm of life that balances our needs and, as is usually the case, the balance is in the middle.

You can’t just stand to cure the same old sit. There are many ways to move. For some of us our jobs require it. For others of us our jobs don’t permit it.

The bottom line is this, find a way to move that works for you and keep moving. Movement is life.

This post was originally published November 3, 2015.

About Eric Kennedy

Eric M. Kennedy, MSIE,  CPE, is a Certified Professional Ergonomist and Senior Risk Control Consultant at Willis T…
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