Sitting on the Job

images (1)It wasn’t long ago when the workplace involved serious physical labor (at least 12-14 hours); most of the work day was spent standing and moving; and the only climate control was that the seasons changed every three months. Today, while some may still experience long work days and physical labor, a larger percentage of the working population is seated while on the job. Aside from the physical problems that sitting causes (tightening of the hamstrings, stiff lower backs, weakening of the posture muscles, etc.), sedentary labor is taking an equally large toll on our health.  A new study suggests that a major reason so many people are overweight is because they simply just sit too much.

In the study, published in the November 2007 issue of Diabetes, scientists at the University of Missouri made a startling discovery.  When we sit, not only are there biomechanical stressors at work, but the enzymes that are responsible for burning fat actually shut down. And unfortunately, not even a regular dose of exercise can combat the resultant weight gain.  Dr. Marc Hamilton, associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia and leader of the research team says, “(The medical community) has always had a general sense of how bad sitting is for you, that it elevated the risks for many illnesses,  but we weren’t sure why.  In this study, we focused on a variety of cellular mechanisms affected by inactivity, one of which was an enzyme (lipase) in muscles – the only enzyme that gets fat out of the blood stream and which is critical for cholesterol regulation.” Dr. Hamilton further reported that the second major revelation from the study was “that the body reacts physiologically different from sitting than the way it responds to exercise.”  Basically, our bodies treat sitting almost like a form of hibernation – storing calories and conserving energy – as opposed to exercise which has the opposite, positive effect. The net result: the body’s ability to burn calories through exercise is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent sitting. Thus, the more you sit, the less you burn, regardless of the amount of exercise performed. When you consider the sobering fact that only 15 percent of Americans have memberships to a health club, and only a small percentage of those members are regular users, the cost of sitting is even more profound.

Sitting is largely a consequence of our sedentary work environment. While it would be very easy for some to blame work for the rise in the workforce waistline, the number of progressive companies taking positive action is rising.  Many companies provide in-house fitness centers, health club subsidies, lower insurance premiums for fit employees, and other incentives, despite the exercise aversion of many employees and the contradictory pressures to stay at their desks and work. In fact, one particular company took that thought process into account when they went to work to find a solution to that problem.

In November 2007, US based furniture manufacturer Steelcase, Inc.  in conjunction with obesity specialist  Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, launched the Walkstation – a complete workstation equipped with a computer and low-speed treadmill that theoretically enables employees to burn calories while on the job (preliminary research saw an average weight loss of approx. 40 lbs per year).  One thing’s for sure; it eliminates the excuse of not having time to workout by combining work with exercise.  The question is: is this a feasible substitute for getting more of the workforce standing and moving, thus burning more calories? Or is just yet another “glamorous” way of giving people the false impression that they are getting an effective workout while working?

Bottom line, sitting is not good for us.  We were not designed to sit for prolonged periods of time and gravity will continue to have its way with our physiques.  With new research indicating there’s more of a concern to sitting from a biochemical stand point, it couldn’t be any clearer as to what is the best solution whether your workstation turns into a small gym or not – GET UP AND MOVE!!!

Featured in May 2008 Issue of 422 Business Advisor

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