For years now work has been creeping its way into home life. Most of us literally carry our work around with us – from the breakfast table to the bed – in the form of cell phones, laptops, and tablets. Try as we might to separate work and home life, they are smashed together by technology and it’s likely not going to change.
Much ink has been spilled debating the effects of the disappearing line between work and home. I’m not about to jump into that tussle. I do, however, wish that one aspect of work would start carrying over into our non-work lives. What aspect would that be? The emphasis on sitting less and moving more.
From Google to the White House, employers across the country are encouraging employees to sit less. If employers are not encouraging this habit change, then employees are organizing for alternatives to sitting desks or outfitting their own workspace. Adjustable-height desks are the furniture of choice when many offices are renovating their space. We all have seen the research on the dangers of prolonged sitting. Employers are interested in cutting health care costs, reducing absenteeism related to health problems, and boosting productivity. Employees long to get rid of that ache in their backs, those few extra pounds, or that post-lunch slump. Adjustable desks, treadmill desks, or even bike desks are being welcomed as alternatives to chairs.
This shift in sitting habits at work is great news. If people sit less at work, then they should sit less overall, right? Well, a new study suggests that may not be the case.
Researchers from Loughborough University in England and Victoria University in Australia recently published surprising results on sitting habits in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. The researchers studied 40 healthy but sedentary office workers by having them wear activity monitors that tracked whether the participants were sitting or standing, among other physical activities.
The participants habits were tracked for two weeks before they were given adjustable-height desks. Prior to getting the desks, the participants spent about 10 hours a day sitting at the office or at home and fewer than 5 hours a day standing. One week after those in the study were given adjustable-height desks, they were sitting for less than 8.5 hours and standing for 6.5 hours a day – a 1.5 hour change in the right direction for both sitting and standing. After three months, however, the time spent standing had dropped to about 5.5 hours – about 30 minutes longer than at the start of the study. The amount of time spent sitting, in turn, had climbed to just over 9 hours per day.
In short, as the participants stood more at the office, they sat more at home. Stacy Clemes, one of the researchers, explained: “It appears that participants were compensating for sitting less at work by sitting more and moving less after work.”
Now this study was a relatively small sample and conducted over a limited time period, but the conclusion is consistent with much of human behavior. If we engage in a healthy activity, we often see if as a free pass to engage in a non-healthy behavior. We’ve all rationalized, “I exercised today so now I can eat this [insert favorite indulgent food].” We tend to want to check boxes rather than focus on the big picture.
When you “check” the exercise box by taking a spin class, lifting weights, or going for a run, but sit for 10 hours and eat a burger, fries, and milkshake for dinner, you are missing the bigger health picture. Similarly when you “check” the standing-at-work box, but then plop on the couch for longer than you would have otherwise, you’re missing the end game. The end game is to reduce chair time overall – not just at the office.
This natural tendency is why it’s so important to shift your focus and break away from a check-the-box mentality. Here are the two ways to shift your focus throughout the day.
First, focus on how often you use chairs, couches, cars – anything that puts your body at a 90-degree angle – as opposed to how often you sit. As I’ve written about previously, chairs, as opposed to sitting, is the big problem. Chairs bring you down – literally – and make it harder to get motivated to move.
Second, focus on how much time you spend in chairs throughout the whole day, not just the workday. Do you sit for all of your meals? Consider standing at the counter for breakfast or finding a tall table at your favorite lunch spot. Do you sit during your commute? Commit to taking public transportation and standing for one way. Do you plop down on the couch as soon as you come home? Try to sit on the floor for 30 minutes rather than on the couch.
Most of us already have little separation between work and home – for better or worse! Use that to your advantage as you reconsider your sitting habits.