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Ohio State University Takes a Stand Against Sitting for Too Long

August 9, 2012

Leaders at Ohio State University decided this year to act on an emerging body of research, one that links too much chair time to poorer health, and launch a mobile campaign designed to unseat their desk-bound employees.

School officials now encourage more standing at meetings or while answering the phone, more walking to communicate with co-workers, and other related workplace adjustments.

They also plan to install 50 sit-stand desks at still-to-be-decided locations at the university by year's end as part of a pilot project to assess their on-the-job effectiveness, says Dr. Anup Kanodia, a faculty member at the university's Center for Personalized Health Care. One of the mobile campaign's initial proponents, Kanodia doesn't sugarcoat the potential health risks of excessive sitting. "If people are coming to work and sitting for four hours [over the course of] a day even they are leaving work sicker than they came," he says.

While the link between chairs and back strain has long been understood, the more recent data indicate that sitting can worsen an individual's cardiovascular health and even heighten the risk of death, Kanodia says The concern is not just the inactivity of sitting. But some emerging research indicates that the immobile muscles involved with sedentary habits—on or off the job—can negatively impact an individual's metabolism, including suppressing enzymes key to maintaining good cholesterol levels, he says.

One frequently cited study, published in 2010 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that the longer that adults sat during the day, the greater their risk of dying, including from heart disease or cancer.

Women who sat at least six hours a day faced a 40 percent higher risk of death compared with those who sat fewer than three hours, the study found. Among men, the death rate was 20 percent higher. Moreover, that sitting-related impact couldn't be reduced by running, tennis or other types of exercise.

True, some of that sitting time is spent lounging in front of the television or home laptop, rather than a workplace terminal. (In fact, the epidemiology study only measures leisure-time sitting.) But one 2011 study highlights what managers know intuitively: Nearly half of all private-sector jobs involved moderate physical activity in 1960, compared with 20 percent in 2008, show the findings, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Some employers have started to incorporate mobility breaks into lengthy meetings, says Dr. Russell Robbins, a principal and senior clinical consultant at Mercer's health and benefits business. Others have invested in centrally located equipment, such as providing treadmill desks that employees can sign out for a stretch of walking/working time. But such efforts, he says, "are not as widespread as I'd like them to be."

One hurdle: Some work settings, such as assembly lines, aren't set up to accommodate unscheduled mobility breaks, Robbins says. Plus, sit-stand desks, treadmill desks and other equipment can be costly. "I think a lot of [employers] are cautious," he says. "Many of the ones that I've spoken to, while they are intrigued by the concept, the price point is an issue."

Sometimes, though, money can be saved along the way, says Larry Lewellen, Ohio State's vice president for care coordination and health promotion, who first alerted Kanodia to the sitting-related research. Purchasing a standing conference table, he points out, eliminates the need for chairs. "That saves thousands [of dollars] in a conference room."

Ohio State leaders already have ordered a standing-only table for the Office of Health Sciences at the university's Wexner Medical Center. Kanodia also plans to monitor how employees use the 50 sit-stand desks, which are being donated by St. Paul, Minnesota-based manufacturer Ergotron Inc. "Can people use a standing workstation?" he asks. "Will there be any harm to it? Will they be more productive at work?"

Too much standing isn't advised for some employees, particularly if they're overweight or struggle with arthritis or other joint difficulties, Robbins says.

But Lewellen finds that he works faster when he's on his feet. "It's an action-oriented pose," he says. Kanodia cites the experience of a physician colleague at nearby Nationwide Children's Hospital, who removed all of his conference table chairs. Meetings that once consumed an hour are now typically wrapped up in half that time.

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

Workforce Management, September 2012, p. 3-4 -- Subscribe Now!