Field Notes: The dangers of the sedentary office

September 2, 2018
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"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Melissa McCants Cruz, PhD, Director of Graduate Admissions, Penfield College - Mercer University

As I sit here typing this article, I have thought about how long I have been sitting here since I walked into the office:  five hours -  with one probably 30-second trip to the copier about 20 steps away.

This article is just as much for my benefit (yes, my BMI is into the obese category for my height) as I hope it is for my colleagues in higher education.  Recently, I heard that “sitting is the new smoking” which, combined with the fact that at the last AACRAO meeting in Orlando I noticed many other overweight colleagues walking from session to session, inspired me to write this article.  

Research on sitting
According to Ejnik (2016), initial research on adverse sedentary time was focused on leisure time and specifically looking into time watching TV and meal times. The fact that we are less physically active during leisure time brought about overall concerns for general health of the population.  However, what was very shocking to me was the fact that the “combination of both sitting more and being less physically active was associated with an increase of all-cause death rates of 94% of women” Patel et al (2010.) This new research shows the increase in sedentary work place environment combined with the lack of physically leisure activity is very harmful – especially for women.  

If you would like to know more about the detailed scientific effects on your body I would suggest that you look at the many articles in the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network (sedentarybehaviour.org) which also houses a questionnaire that may be useful if you are wanting to conduct your own research at your institution.

Two global calls for action in 2008 to increase physical activity came in the form of the Physical Activity Guidelines (released by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion – as background this office was created in 1976 by congress to work to prevent disease and promote health efforts in the United States.) and the World Health Organization (WHO) met at their 61st Assembly and released the WHO Global Plan of Action on Workers’ Health.  

Both addressed the need for increased physical activity – however the need for reduction of sedentary behavior is what is becoming more of a concern.  With an average of 8.9 work hours – most of which as spent sitting, even with average weekly physical activity outside of work, according to the CDC – the extended periods of sitting during a workday has been associated with premature mortality, chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.  

Prioritizing a healthy work environment
I recently conducted an unscientific poll of my colleagues and received many responses to the following two questions:

1) Do you purposefully make time to stand up and walk away from your desk, other than having to use the restroom or eat lunch?

2) What is your best estimate of the amount of time you sit at your desk each day?  

These questions were a direct result of my understanding of the varying definition of prolonged sitting as well as the overall average workday hours and the number of hours specifically spent sitting (Dunstan et. al, 2012, Cooley and Pedersen, 2013.)

My colleagues informed me that many are sitting in excess of 8 hours a day at their desks.  During peak times of work, many note that they rise from their desks maybe 2x in the entire day of work.  In addition, they note that even though they have participated in activity reviews by our own physical therapy department and were warned of the harms of prolonged sitting time, in order to accomplish their daily workflow they must remain seated.  After having spent 3+ hours going through our Title IX training videos, I wondered if we spent as much time concerning ourselves with creating not only a safe but a healthy work environment – how that would impact our productivity.

Next steps
I have worked in higher education on the same campus for 16 years.  With various positions at this university, I certainly have had a variety of responsibilities – none of which called for much walking around.  I will calculate that with average of 260 workdays in a year – with at least (for me) sitting average of 80% of my time at my desk – that is 6.5 hours of sitting – over 16 years…  27,040 hours of sitting. That’s the equivalent of approximately 1,126 days of sitting.

Next steps (pun intended): to begin more of an effort to intentionally rise from my desk and take a short walking break.  Hopefully I will get some of my colleagues to join me. In addition, I plan on conducting an IRB approved survey of our campuses and will report on those results as well.  Until then – if you want to reach me and I’m not at my desk – hopefully it’s because I’m taking a stroll with a colleague.

References

CDC, 2011. Reducing Occupational Sitting Time and Improving Worker Health: The Take-a Stand Project, Preventing Chronic Disease. 2012; 9.

Dunstan DW, Howard B, Healy GN, Owen N., 2012, Too much sitting – A health hazard. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice; 97(3):368–376.

Cooley D, Pedersen S., 2013. A pilot study of increasing nonpurposeful movement breaks at work as a means of reducing prolonged sitting. Journal of Environmental and Public Health;2013:1–8.

Ejnik, A. (2016). The impact of a workplace intervention on sitting time among office employees: Standpoints!(Order No. 10240600). Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1861947348). Retrieved from https://proxy-s.mercer.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1861947348?accountid=12381

Sedentary Behaviour Research Network, 2012. Tremblay M. Letter to the editor: Standardized use of the terms ‘sedentary’ and ‘sedentary behaviours’. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 2012;37.

WHO 2013. WHO global plan of action on workers’ health (2008-2017): Baseline for implementation.

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Adults - 2008 physical activity guidelines. 2015.

Patel AV, Bernstein L, Deka A, Feigelson HS, Campbell PT, Gapstur SM, Colditz GA, Thun MJ, 2010. Leisure time spent sitting in relation to total mortality in a prospective cohort of US adults. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2010;172(4):419–429.