Sitting at Work is Bad, But Not Moving is Worse, UIC Study Finds

You may have been warned that “sitting is the new smoking.” Researchers have linked the long-term effects of sitting for many hours at a time with Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer

But a new study may have you second-guessing the purchase of a standing desk. 

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University of Illinois at Chicago researchers measured the calories burned by participants working at three different workplace stations: some sitting, some standing and some sitting while using a device that let them swing and move their feet at random.

Craig Horswill, the study’s lead author, said those sitting at a desk while periodically moving their feet fared better than those sitting or standing still.

“We found that the swing device elevated metabolism by about 17 percent compared to just sitting and also was above the energy expenditure rate of standing – which surprised us,” said Horswill, clinical associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition at UIC. “We figured we’d beat the sitting position but thought we’d be more comparable or maybe even less than the standing position.”

The company behind a device designed for such movement (and used in the study) provided funding for the study, but Horswill said you don’t need one to reproduce the effects.

He said any sort of random, sporadic movement at your desk, like a restless leg or fidgety hand, might help burn more energy, and calories, than standing at your desk – although that posture can bring about unintended benefits, too.

“We’re pretty efficient at standing and not wasting energy,” Horswill said. “The advantage of standing is that you’re on your feet already and you’re more likely to behave differently. Like, ‘I’ll walk across the room if I’m standing to get that book versus sitting, when I’m not going to get up at this point.’”

Bryan Canady, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center contracting specialist, performs his job while standing at the computer. (Tommie Horton / U.S. Air Force) Bryan Canady, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center contracting specialist, performs his job while standing at the computer. (Tommie Horton / U.S. Air Force)

Horswill recommends that anyone who sits or stands for several hours a day consider moving around periodically, whether it’s to take a short walk or stand up to stretch.

Below, a Q&A with Horswill.

This device had sitters engaging in non-exercise thermogenesis – abbreviated as “NEAT” – what is that?

Craig Horswill: If a person fidgets at their desk, scratches their head, lifts their pencil, this kind of random, constant movement that falls into that category.

Tapping their foot, even to the point of walking up the steps versus taking the escalator could be considered that – it’s not necessarily a planned activity or exercise that you do to get in shape but it’s something that makes the muscles work and burns some calories.

Do you expect the workplace to look differently 10-20 or more years from now based on this research?

Yes, I think it is changing. The fact that so many people work at home now and have that flexibility to be moving, doing other things while they’re working at home and not necessarily sitting in the cubicle. Whether it’s in the office doing something – some movement – or I know many people are having moving meetings, where they walk around the block while they have meetings. Getting people to be more physically active is probably the future.

Is it true that depending on how long you sit for, a workout plan may not reverse the damage of sedentary behavior?

Right. Sitting 8-11 hours a day at work and then going to exercise for 30 minutes negates the protective effect of that 30 minutes of exercise at the end of the day.

You’re kind of back to square one vs. the person that moves around and then does that 30 minutes of exercise, they get a benefit towards lower mortality. Ultimately, the thing that changes that course along the way are probably contracting your muscles – the effect that it has on the blood vessels, to help prevent hardening of the blood vessels. A contraction of the muscles decreases the risk of Type 2 diabetes, improving the muscles ability to take up sugar and keep blood sugar levels lower or more quickly lower than if you’d just quickly eaten a meal. Those are two big things.

There’s some evidence that breaking up the day and moving helps to modestly – yet statistically beyond chance – reduce cholesterol levels or improve their profile of cholesterol levels. So all of those would be risk factors heading you down towards earlier death.

So you’re saying someone with a restless leg – or that fidgets at their desk – is better off?

Yes. There’s actually a study out of Missouri that showed that some real modest tapping of your heel, repeating that cycle modestly had a big impact on vascular effects of flow-mediated vasodilation – it may have an impact on the lining of our vessels to make them more healthy. That is very minor.

Now if it’s at night when people is sleeping, that’s a different thing, but certainly during the day, that kind of movement – fidgeting and whatnot – is not necessarily a bad thing. By some estimates, from a couple of decades ago, people may burn 800 calories a day when you add that up. That’s like a Big Mac and a half – a lot of calories.

Do you know any reason(s) for restless leg/fidgeting?

I know enough not to say anything about restless leg syndrome at night. [Laughs]

During the day, there’s speculation that we have at least one hormone, or a neurotransmitter in the brain, that keeps us in check for movement and energy balance. It may be more of a genetic thing. When we’ve eaten, now it’s time to move or when we move, now it’s time to eat – to kind of keep ourselves in balance. There’s data in animals showing an animal neurotransmitter that has that effect – to my knowledge, it hasn’t been identified in humans yet. It may differ between a person that doesn’t fidget enough or at all  vs. a person who does, but again, it’s very speculative.

What’s your stance – no pun intended – on treadmill desks?

That could be effective. I think since desks are designed to do cognitive work and be intellectually productive for the job or school, it may be a challenge to still do that physical movement and get the work done. I think there’s a tendency that if I want to be intellectually productive, I need to back off on what I’m doing. You may give up on some of the true movement activities. What you don’t want people to do is buy the treadmill but then they never move on it. We don’t want to fool them into thinking they’re getting a benefit if they’re not really doing the physical work.

Anything else you want to add?

I’d just say that people need to be physically moving to make sure they get the benefits of reducing their risk factories, so whether it’s movement at a desk or taking that break to get up and move. Certainly still going to the gym at the ned of the day and maybe even exercising a little bit harder will be a good thing.

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