As a Territory Sales Manager for Workrite Ergonomics, I publish a bi-weekly email newsletter that goes out to all my valued clients and furniture dealer partners. As I do research for my newsletter, the hottest topic by far has to do with the dangers of sitting.
Never before has so much attention been focused on ergonomics in the workplace and in particular the dangers of sitting.
So what’s so bad about sitting? Do a Google search for “dangers of sitting” and you will get literally 30,000,000 plus hits. Advancing technology has changed how we communicate, do business, play, and has virtually touched every area of our lives. In the same way that athletes in all sports are bigger, faster, stronger, and more explosive that ever before, we know more about how the body works and that has elevated the field of ergonomics to a much higher level than in times past.
According to JustStand.org, the term “Sitting Disease” has been coined by the scientific community and is commonly used when referring to metabolic syndrome and the ill-effects of an overly sedentary lifestyle. And while the medical community does not recognize Sitting Disease as a diagnosable disease at this time, the data is clear that excessive sitting comes with a price.
From a Washington Post article titled The Health Hazards of Sitting, the following are the risk factors associated with excessive sitting:
- Heart disease, elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure
- Diabetes and other related diseases
- Colon, breast, endometrial cancers
- Hyperlordosis or “swayback”
- Tight hip flexors leading to low back pain
- Poor circulation in the legs potentially leading to blood clots and deep vein thrombosis
- Soft bones due to increases inactivity
- Brain function
- Excessive strain to the cervical spine
- Excessive strain to the upper back muscles
- Inflexible spine
- Disk damage including increased risk for herniated lumbar disks.
In another article from the Mayo Clinic published by James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., the following is yet more evidence clearly spelling out the dangers of sitting:
Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Too much sitting also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
One study compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of the TV or other screen-based entertainment with those who logged more than four hours a day of recreational screen time. Those with greater screen time had:
- A nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause
- About a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack
The increased risk was separate from other traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as smoking or high blood pressure.
The social awareness surrounding low back pain in particular has never been greater and it is now being considered a major form of musculoskeletal degeneration.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine:
- Low-back pain affects 80% of all adults
- Low-back pain to be predominant among workers in enclosed workspaces(offices), as well as people who sit for periods greater than 3 hours.
- More than 1/3 of all work related injuries involve the trunk, and of these, more than 60% involve the low back.
- These work-related injuries cost workers approximately 9 days per episode or, combined, more than 39 million days of restricted activity.
- In the United States, the annual cost attributable to low back pain are greater than $26 billion.
And finally, according to “Mother Google”:
In total, Americans are sitting an average of 13 hours a day and sleeping an average of 8 hours resulting in a sedentary lifestyle of around 21 hours a day. While Americans know about the importance of exercise, only 31 percent go to the gym, and 56 percent devote less than $10 per month to staying active. Jul 17, 2013
The stats from Google say the average person sits 13 hours a day while the National Academy of Sports Medicine says you’re at risk if you sit more than 3. You might be the exception to the rule and not be bound to a desk and computer for the bulk of your day, however, remember that all sitting is cumulative.
From the moment you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night, all forms of sitting add up. This means the time at your breakfast table with your morning coffee, the drive to the office, lunch with clients, the commute home, dinner with family, and an evening in front of your flat screen…it all adds up to stress on your body.
Posture is critical and the image above shows the “ideal” posture when seated at a desk and computer. You might come very close to this ideal, however in my professional experience, most people are far from this mostly because of a lack of knowledge of what good posture actually is. Workrite Ergonomics recently introduced a cutting edge technology tool called the Lumo Lift which acts as a constant guide to maintaining posture whether seated or standing.
The other major factor working against you is that you’re likely set up to fail with your current work set up. You could be sitting in any one of the state of the art task chairs shown above compliments of the top contract furniture manufacturers in the industry and still be at risk. It’s not the chairs…they’re fantastic. We as humans are just not designed to sit for extended periods of time.
In my post, Is a 29″ Desk Right for You?, I go into great detail explaining why the standard height desk is too tall for the vast majority of end users. Bottom line, if you’re less than 6’3″ and you’re using a standard height desk with no keyboard tray, you’re at risk. There is no way you can approximate the positions shown in the “Perfect Seated Posture” image above. If you fit this scenario, then your risk of injury comes down to the following factors:
- Duration (How long?)
- Frequency (How often?)
- Intensity (How much?)
- Combination of risk factors: the more risk factors you have at once, the more likely an injury will occur.
So if you fit the mold of being less than 6’3″, using a standard desk with no keyboard tray, then consider the following:
- How long are you sitting each day? Remember all daily sitting is cumulative, so include your entire day…not just time spent at the office.
- Is it a daily pattern or does your schedule and or workstation set up allow you the flexibility to alternate periods of sitting with standing?
- How far off are you from the positions shown above. Look at it this way, if a 29″ desk is scaled for someone 6’3″, the shorter you are, the more you’re having to modify your body to “fit” your desk and this puts you at greater risk.
- What’s my total cumulative risk given the combination of these different factors?
So what’s the solution? The ergonomics industry recommends at least two points of adjustment to help fit the standard height desk to your body. A quality keyboard platform, adjustable monitor arm, and foot stool for shorter individuals, are your first line of defense.
The adjustable height desk is the gold standard solution offering the greatest degree of flexibility to tailor the desk height to the needs of the end user. Depending on how much you sit, there are still some advantages of keeping the keyboard tray to allow for sitting in a variety of positions throughout the day. Your body craves movement…not static positions.
And regardless of whether you use the adjustable height desk or not, an adjustable monitor arm is critical for getting your monitor at the right vertical and horizontal position for both your health and the maximization of your available workspace. I discuss this last point in my post, Is Your Company’s Investment in Technology Costing You Real Estate?
If you are fortunate enough to be sitting in an ergonomically correct workstation truly designed to fit your body, and your posture is “perfect”, you’re still at risk for low back pain depending on how much you sit. When you sit, your hips are flexed as well as your hip flexors.
Two of your most powerful hip flexors are the Psoas which originate from the last thoracic vertebrae and all five lumbar vertebrae and inserts into the Lesser trochanter of the femur. In simple terms, they help tie the torso to your lower body. If you’re standing on both feet and raise one knee up to the point of your thigh being parallel to the ground (like when sitting), your Psoas did a big portion of the work.
So what’s the catch? As I said above, when you’re sitting your hips (think Psoas) are flexed pulling on your lower back. For short periods of time, it’s not a big deal. If I asked you to hold your arm out straight to the side for 30 seconds, you could do so with little effort or discomfort…right? But if asked you to go for 10 minutes, you would never make it. Your arm would be coming off your shoulder.
The build up to low back pain may take longer than the arm scenario above, but the longer you sit, the more likely you are to develop pain and eventual injury. So what’s the solution? There are many but the following are my top three recommendations:
Movement: Our bodies crave movement rather than static postures. No matter what type of work you do, alternating periods of sitting and standing throughout the day is the best way to protect your body. It’s actually harder to mess up your posture while standing verses sitting and yet you’re not designed to stand all day either. You need both for optimal health.
Stretching: A general stretching program for the whole body is vital for your health in general. If you sit for extended periods each day, you need to work particularly hard on your Psoas and other hip flexors. You can work to undo “some” of the damage done by sitting and it doesn’t take a big investment in time. A few minutes daily will do wonders for your body.
Strength Training: A balanced program for the whole body, like stretching, is vital for your overall health. A targeted focus on your upper back muscles and posterior chain will benefit your posture greatly. Most people tend to slouch forward. Extra work on your entire “back side” will help pull you back into balance.
Final thoughts for my readers:
The research is clear on the dangers of sitting and the best solution is to strategically include time standing throughout the day. Sit to Stand Solutions are all the rage these days in the commercial office furniture industry because they are truly the best way to work.
Remember however that ergonomics is not confined to the workplace. All sitting is cumulative and you need to monitor both how much you sit and your posture throughout the day to best protect your body from damage. If you have “pain” related to your current work set up, remember Einstein’s definition of insanity…”doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
If you’re hurting now, you have to do something different. The pain is not going to just go away on its own. As a certified ergonomic assessment specialist, I do workplace evaluations for my clients on a regular basis. If you have doubts or concerns about your current work set up, please give me the opportunity to help.