As a society, we are spending far more time in jobs that require us to be sat for long periods, and this goes for our leisure time, too. This means many of us will likely spend a huge portion of our day on our backsides, leading to health implications related to a healthy lifestyle.
There are several problems with sitting for long periods, especially when this makes up most of our working day. Firstly, it has a massive impact on our total daily energy expenditure, by reducing our non-exercise activity (NEAT), meaning that our overall calorie budget for the day will be reduced. It is unsurprising then that office jobs are associated with increased risks of obesity and, as a result, the potential to develop other diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers1,2.
This is amplified by coming home from work and then being mostly sedentary as well – even an hour in the gym would not make up for this lack of activity in most people to help control weight without a very structured approach to nutrition… so what can we do to increase our NEAT?
It’s really quite simple if you pay attention to it; we can take the stairs instead of the lift, make sure we park a little further away from our place of work, or if we get public transport maybe walk or cycle a few days a week. Even at work there are things that we can do that all add up: setting a timer for every hour to simply stand and take a lap of the building can contribute to NEAT and will also help you clear your mind, help increase blood flow around the body, increase productivity and reduce sitting discomfort.
The second issue is related to the way that we often sit. Most people sit in a very lazy posture, allowing the pelvis to tilt forwards and we end up hinging on the vertebrae in our back, in particular the lower back. Long periods of improper sitting have been linked to the development of lower back pain and this has been linked to increased disk pressure, stretching of ligaments and an impaired nerve function and lack of nutrient provision3. It is unsurprising then that the time we spend at work has a shown a strong relationship with the severity of lower back pain4.
There are several things we can do to help prevent this. We can obviously look to make sure that we keep our pelvis and back positioned in the correct neutral position and that we are actively trying to maintain a proper posture through activating the lower back muscles; the problem with this is that it often requires a lot of mental concentration and a weak back and years of poor ‘programming’ will make this a challenging habit to maintain.
We can, however, work at strengthening our back and core muscles through back extensions, planks and other core exercises, alongside other movements (such as dead-bugs), so that we can get those often-inactive lower back muscles firing and stabilising the lower back. These can also be used when taking breaks, alongside stretching the lower back, hamstrings, hips and glutes which, if tight, can also contribute to lower back pain and poor sitting posture. Just doing this for ten minutes per day could make a big difference to discomfort, NEAT, help reduce risk of back problems and even help boost productivity as a result.
For some people this might be a challenging routine to get into, including the fear of looking silly in front of colleagues in the office! If that’s the case, make these exercises a part of your warm-ups, which you should be doing anyway, especially if performing lifts that place stress on the lower back like squats and deadlifts, or as part of your morning and pre-bedtime ritual. A solid back strengthening, activation and stretching routine should take 10-15 minutes so it’s not a big time investment for the benefits that it gives.
Even if we don’t want to go to this extreme, there is good evidence that simply standing for a few minutes every 30-60 minutes will have a huge benefit in preventing lower back pain and discomfort… in some offices there are even fully adjustable desks which allow you to work when sitting and standing. If you hate the tea/coffee run maybe use this as an excuse to get out your chair and take advantage of this opportunity to move about a bit!
Rules to follow
There are three very simple rules then that we can follow that will help prevent back pain, improve posture and increase our NEAT, which will not impact on our productivity, but possibly enhance it5.
1.) Stand Up: Make sure you stand up for a couple of minutes at least every hour.
2.) Sit Less: Where possible use opportunities to work standing up, or schedule tasks that require standing and walking at different points throughout the day to break up sitting periods.
3.) Move More: See running errands as an opportunity to improve health and not a chore; take opportunities to take a walk outside on breaks and volunteer for more active jobs… monitor your daily steps and try to hit 10,000 each day.
In summary, a desk job can be not only bad for your lower back, but also your waistline too. One of the biggest issues for those trying to lose weight is ensuring they have enough NEAT. Yes, exercise is great, but NEAT potentially contributes much more to our daily energy expenditure, so invest in (or make sure you use one if you have one) a step monitor, set yourself a daily step target and make sure you hit them. Use every opportunity to stand, stretch and walk and if this is a struggle at work, find time to do these exercises at home.
- Thorp et al., (2011) Prolonged sedentary time and physical activity in workplace and non-work contexts: a cross-sectional study of office, customer service and call centre employees. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 29:128.
- Wilmot et al., (2012). Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetologia 55 (11): 2895–2905.
- Gupta et al., (2015) Is Objectively Measured Sitting Time Associated with Low Back Pain? A Cross-Sectional Investigation in the NOMAD study. PLoS ONE 10(3):0121159.
- Zhang et al., (1996). Identifying Factors of Comfort and Discomfort in Sitting. The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. 38(3): 377-389
- Healy et al., (2013) Reducing sitting time in office workers: short-term efficacy of a multicomponent intervention. Preventive Medicine 57 (1): 43-48.