THE SCIENCE OF SEDENTARY BEHAVIOR
Working with the Stanford Center on Longevity and Blue Shield of California, Faculty Affiliate Dr. Cathy Heaney has completed a pilot study concluding that it is possible to get people to reduce the time they spend sitting by changing their workspace. The study was an outgrowth of the Center on Longevity’s Conference on the Science of Sedentary Behavior. In the conference, experts from around the world met and concluded that there was significant evidence that sitting too much can lead to negative health consequences, but that not enough is known about how much sitting is too much or how to provide meaningful guidelines. Heaney’s study is a first step towards achieving these goals.
The study was conducted in a Blue Shield of California call center, where employees spend their days sitting at their desks on the phone with customers. Into this environment, Heaney introduced “sit to stand” desks that allowed the employees to freely move their work surface back and forth between sitting and standing positions. She also instructed employees to try to stand 10 minutes out of every hour. The employees were asked to wear a digital monitoring device that recorded when they were sitting and when they stood. Importantly, the employees wore these devices 24 hours a day for each monitoring period to see if people who stood more at work would adjust their behavior at home and sit more there. The study went on for 12 weeks, with four week-long monitoring periods.
As expected, there was a novelty effect, with employees standing 45% of their working hours during the first week the desks were introduced (the employees stood only 27% of the time before the desks). While employees did return to sitting more in subsequent weeks, the desks produced a measurable effect even two months after being introduced, at which point employees were standing 35% of their day. Perhaps just as importantly, employees overwhelmingly viewed the desks as a positive improvement to their work. They reported being more productive and having more energy throughout the day. Their monitor data showed that the gains persisted and that sitting time at home did not increase.
Putting the results in simple terms, the study was able to influence employees to stand an hour more per day by only changing the furniture. The employees felt good about standing more often and productivity did not suffer. The promise of verifying these gains with a broader population is leading the research team to design further studies to identify the best ways to motivate employees to maintain their gains and meet standing time goals. If the results of the follow-on are similarly positive, it could lead to a long-term study on the health effects of sitting in the workplace with a goal of identifying national workplace sitting health guidelines.