New study on prolonged sitting puts focus on employers

April 2, 2012

Education, Health Care

JOHN STODDER, MBJ blogger

A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine implicating sedentary behavior for causing premature death might put more pressure on government and business to allow employees more time for standing up.

The study of some 200,000 Australians age 45 and older showed that those who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40 percent higher risk of dying in the next three years than adults who sat less than four hours a day.

The Archives of Internal Medicine is a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Medical Association. The article was published March 26.

“Prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality, independent of physical activity,” the study concluded. “Public health programs should focus on reducing sitting time in addition to increasing physical activity levels.”

The study’s author, Hidde van der Ploeg, is a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney.  He told Health Day that his study “stands out because of its large number of participants and the fact that it was one of the first that was able to look at total sitting time.”

The study is the latest in a wave of medical research that links prolonged sitting with life-threatening illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

All of the studies conclude that people who follow standard government recommendations regarding daily exercise would still be at risk if, during the hours when not working out, they are sedentary, according to the emerging consensus.

Business and government agencies that oversee worker safety and health have been slow to implement workplace changes in response to the mounting medical evidence that the way millions of Americans routinely work is damaging their health.

In an article published in March, LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health, said, “There are lots of work environments where it is problematic to allow people to get up and move frequently. If you’re on a manufacturing line, it’s a problem unless you have the leadership of the plant. At a call center, if you’re evaluated on productivity and hold times, you’re on a short leash. You need middle management support and operational leaders to buy in.”

A study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, published in 2000 and updated in 2007, found that sedentary data-entry workers who were given five-minute breaks at least once an hour not only experienced less stress and discomfort, but also were more productive than workers who worked the extra minutes.

However, NIOSH is only now beginning to distribute educational materials concerning the study to employers.

— John Stodder

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