This month a job change has inspired me to write about the mind body health risks of a sedentary work life. Shifting from a job that entailed constant shifting, standing and moving as a clinical physician to a desk job has opened my eyes to a cultural epidemic at large. Physical inactivity.
This is not a new problem, but when looking at the problem of physical inactivity through the eyes of a medical anthropologist, it is clear that our cultural behaviors have not kept up with the harms that technology has introduced into our lives. Over the course of the last 30 years, the introduction of the computer has changed the working life of most Americans. Since the 1950’s, the number of sedentary jobs has increased 83%. Only 20% of American workers have physically active jobs, while the rest of us are left sitting still. The health tolls of an inactive lifestyle are no secret. In a 2004 JAMA journal article evaluating actual cause of death found that physical inactivity trailed tobacco use for actual cause of death in the United States. A 2012 article published in the Lancet revealed that physical inactivity contributed to 1 in 10 deaths worldwide from coronary heart disease, breast and colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Researchers publishing in the American College of Sports Medicine have shown an increase in cardiovascular disease related to sedentary behavior. In fact in their figures a dose response curve can be seen when looking at the relationship between cardiovascular disease and sedentary behavior.
Despite this, many feel that it is socially acceptable for people to leave their desk for a cigarette break, but don’t feel it is acceptable to leave their desks to go for a walk.
Given the large number of people affected, and the toll physical inactivity takes on or publish health system, our culture has yet to modify behavior to reduce our health risks. I do not deny that shifts are occurring in industry with an increase in standing and walking desks as well as company wellness programs. But often these programs are seen as little more than symbolic and people may still feel cultural pressures to stay chained to their desk or seated in meetings. In fact we start training this into our children from a young age as we reportedly tell them to “sit still“.
Who is responsible? The Surgeon General’s Office , the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control all highlight the danger of physical inactivity and encourage businesses to make fitness more of a priority. However workplace culture has yet to change in meaningful ways. The reality is that we live in an information age and work needs to be done at a “computer workstation“.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration writes this about the health risks of the computer workstation, “Today’s computer workstation has few hazards other than ergonomic that the typical worker will be exposed to if all components are functioning properly.”
Ergonomics?!! Is that it?!!!
Given the data that reflects the grave risks of physical inactivity while working at the computer workstation, this statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. Therefore, as workers we have no legal protection against the health risks encountered in the workplace. Shouldn’t we as a culture be able to meet our basic physical needs of movement within our work day? Given the epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in this country, OSHA could do wonders for public health by recognizing that physical inactivity is tied to the computer workstation and the health risks that this introducea in the work place.
Since I began writing this entry I have requested a sit stand desk and have requested that there be standing room in meetings. People look at me funny when I stand in meetings, again demonstrating that the workplace culture is not conducive to physical activity. I also make it a priority to exercise daily even if just going for a walk, and try to get up to stretch once per hour. I just hope it’s enough.
Tips to avoid physical inactivity:
1. Request a sit stand or a treadmill desk
2. Get up and stretch or walk at least once an hour, even had you’re in a meeting or a lecture. If you’re the speaker, add in a break. Everyone will benefit.
3. Lean back when seated- this may be better for your back according to well publicized MRI research looking at the strain caused on the back when sitting at a 90° angle. Sitting instead at a 135° angle was shown to allow muscles and tendons to relax.
4. Talk to your colleagues about the importance of movement. Be an agent of change in your workplace culture, push for your right to physical activity, even if people look at you funny