To Change Our Sitting Habit, We Have to Remove the Cue

desk with objects on it

There is no shortage of reports and articles detailing the dramatic toll that inactivity is having on people’s health, companies’ profits, and the larger economy. And there is reason to be dramatic.

We are about to hit the highest ever recorded obesity level among adults. A Mayo clinic study reported that women who are obese exercise for a mere one hour the entire year. Even men and women of normal weight exercise vigorously for just two minutes per day on average. The health problems resulting from unhealthy eating and physical inactivity are costing the United States economy $117 billion a year. The average person spends 9.3 hours per day sitting and 21 hours being inactive. 21 hours! That’s only 3 hours of some kind of activity. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it is estimated that people sat for only 3 hours a day.

Solutions with Limitations

We must find solutions to the sedentary culture we’ve created. An important place to focus is the workplace. Most of us spend more time than we’d like working, and for of most that means hours in a chair, five days a week. I often read or hear suggestions for increasing activity while at work. These suggestions typically include:

– Set a timer that reminds you to stand up every half an hour

– Schedule a walking meeting with your colleagues

– Instead of emailing a co-worker, walk to his or her office and talk in person

– Take the stairs in the office rather than the elevator

– Use the restroom farthest from your office to get in more steps

I have made some of these suggestions myself, and they are fine ways to add a bit of activity. But suggestions like these lacking, too. They are not the serious, long-term solutions needed. With the average person being sedentary nearly the entire day, we need ways to cut hours off of sitting time, not minutes here and there.

To significantly cut back on sitting time, we have to break the habit of sitting.

Sitting as a Habit

Millions of working adults are in the habit of sitting while working. I purposely am using the word “habit” because I think it describes well our sitting behavior. Sitting is our routine during the work day. We don’t think about; we just do it.

Is it possible to break that habit? In his best-selling book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg examined the keys to changing a habit. Duhigg is optimistic about the potential to break free of our usual patterns. He writes:

Everything we know about the science of habits indicates any habit can be changed.

To do so, Duhigg says that we must understand the cue that triggers the habit. If you do not understand why you engage in a routine to begin with, then you cannot change that routine, Duhigg contends.

So what is the cue that triggers a day full of sedentary behavior when you are at the office? The answer is simple: a sitting desk. When the space in which you will spend most of the day allows you to do nothing but sit, then sitting is exactly what you will do.

The sitting-desk cue is the main reason that I am not confident in the long-term benefits of taking the stairs or having a walking meeting. These behaviors are not likely to lead to breaking the sitting habit. When you return from the walk, the sitting desk is right there.

With a sitting desk still in your office, you have to break through that cue to get up and move. Breaking through a cue is hard. If you have a habit of eating potato chips at night and there is a bag of chips sitting on your counter, it is hard to not give into the cue. In the same way, when you’re settled at your desk and plugging away at work, it is hard to stand up every half an hour for a break. In the moment, it just seems easier to send an email rather than walk to a colleague’s office, no matter how many steps the walk will add to your day.Don't Just Stand There Resized

Don’t Break It, Remove It

Instead of breaking through the cue, we should focus on removing the cue. If you don’t buy the chips and they are not on the counter, then it is impossible to woof them down at 11 pm.

Similarly, the best way to change the sitting cue is to not have a sitting desk. An adjustable-height desk helps to eliminate the cue that triggers the sitting habit in the office. Image if every morning you started with the option either to stand or sit. An adjustable desk cues people to think about how they want to work at any moment. This option makes it easier to act on all of the research about the benefits of standing and moving more.

If having a new desk is not an option, you could change the cue in other ways, too. You could literally push your chair out of sight for an hour or two each day. Before you leave the office at night, move your chair away from you desk. The next morning when you arrive, sitting will be out of sight and out of mind. Invest in a desktop riser or find some printer boxes to place your computer on. With the chair cue removed, you are more likely to keep on your feet.

As more people and companies want to start changing their sitting habits, the rise of the adjustable-height desk (pun intended) is inevitable. In 20 years, few people will be worried about breaking the sitting habit. Adjustable-height desks will be commonplace, and the cues we experience each morning for how to spend our day will be changed.

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