Risks of Sitting vs Standing at Work

In Career Advice
May 17, 2016

Health Risks of Sititng

There is a lot of debate around whether you should sit or stand while at work. For medical professionals like nurses, doctors, physician assistants and family nurse practitioners, standing is sometimes the only option.

As noted in an infographic published by Nursing@Georgetown, exclusive sitting or standing for the majority of one’s day presents risks, so it’s important that professionals whose jobs require them to stand balance it with stretching, proper footwear, and occasional sitting. Here we’ll discuss the risks of each working style and what people can do to improve their health at work.

Health Risks for Sitters

Defined as people who sit for more than four hours per day, sitters are considered to be leading a sedentary lifestyle—even if they exercise regularly after work. According to a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, more than half of the average person’s waking hours are spent sitting, and those who did so for prolonged periods of time had a higher risk of dying from all causes.

Dr. Joanne Foody, the director of the Cardiovascular Wellness Center at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says there are many health risks associated with sitting too much: “While we often think of the dangers of inactivity in terms of worsening cardiovascular health, there are a myriad of negative effects.” In fact, one study proposed that after a certain age, “…each hour you spend sitting reduces your life expectancy by about 21.8 minutes, regardless of your exercise and diet.” Researchers noted that there could be a wide variance in that number, depending upon each individual’s situation.

A sedentary lifestyle contributes to neck stiffness, heart disease, lower back pain, obesity and restless legs. The long-term health risks of sitting depend upon how long you sit.

  • Adults who sit for 11 hours per day or more for three or more years have a 40 percent increased risk of death.
  • Those who sit for six hours per day have an 18 percent increased risk of dying from diabetes, heart disease, or obesity.
  • Individuals who sit most of the day have a 54 percent increased risk of dying from a heart attack.
  • Those who engage in more than four hours of screen time per day have a 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause.

In addition, these sedentary habits can lead to disruptions in metabolic function (such as high triglyceride levels), decreased levels of “good” cholesterol, and decreased insulin sensitivity—which is closely associated with developing Type 2 diabetes.

Who sits the most? Common sedentary occupations in the United States include drivers, administrative assistants, writers and editors, and computer software and IT professionals.

Health Risks for Standers

“Standers” are defined as those individuals who stand more than four hours per day, and it’s recommended that people do not spend more than two consecutive hours standing
Excessive standing contributes to neck and shoulder stiffness, lower back pain, pain and aching in the legs and feet, pronation of the feet (flat feet), and heel spurs and plantar fasciitis.

Long term, these individuals are at increased risk of stroke, degeneration of the joints and spine, and have an increased risk for preterm birth. Back injuries are common among this population—accounting for 1 in 4 non-fatal occupational injuries.

As Maria Gabriela Garcia, the co-author of a study on back pain notes, “Current work schedules for standing work may not be adequate for preventing fatigue accumulation, and this long-lasting muscle fatigue may contribute to musculoskeletal disorders and back pain.”

In addition to back pain, 83 percent of industrial workers in the U.S. report foot or lower leg pain and discomfort associated with prolonged standing—and those who spend more than half of their working hours standing have a 39 percent increased risk of chronic venous insufficiency.

Who stands the most? Common occupations in the U.S that require excessive standing include nurses, teachers, wait staff, and hairdressers and barbers.

Strategies for Better Health

Although the long-accepted recommendation is for adults to be physically active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day—and children 60 minutes per day—researchers are beginning to suspect that may not be enough. To counteract the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, a variety of strategies are needed to achieve better health.

If you’re a sitter, it’s recommended that you:

  • Check your posture, flex your feet, and take a walk during lunch.
  • Consider a convertible desk, which will let you alternate between standing and sitting throughout the day.
  • Download fitness apps that can help you keep track of your activity levels.

Recommendations for standers include:

  • Stretch consistently according to your physician’s guidance.
  • Take care of your feet with good shoes that have adequate support and use anti-fatigue mats to stand on.
  • Consider saddle chairs that will give you a hybrid of sitting and standing.

Whether your job requires you to sit or stand, doing either for prolonged periods isn’t good for you. However, if you pay attention to what your body needs and follow a few key strategies, you’ll enjoy your work more—and better health while you do.

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