Are we sitting (too) comfortably when working at home?*

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Through circumstances beyond our control, the past year has seen a lot of us spend more time sitting than we might have liked. But what does this mean for our health, both mental and physical? In this issue, the team at the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre (PAHRC), based at Moray House School of Education and Sport, share a bit more about their latest research project.

Covid-19 has transformed our working lives. Working from home has become part of the new normal, and for many of us it is unlikely that we will return to the office on a full-time basis.

Whilst there are many benefits to working from home, there are also potential negative consequences. The PAHRC team is particularly interested in understanding more about how working from home has impacted the amount of time we spend being sedentary (mainly by sitting).

It is likely that working at home will have increased our sitting time, as we work for many hours at a computer screen and have lots of Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings. We also have fewer opportunities during the day to reduce our sitting time because we no longer commute, move around or between buildings to attend meetings, or go out to grab a coffee or lunch.

Unfortunately, there is an increasing amount of research evidence that shows too much sedentary behaviour (including sitting, but also other reclining behaviours that don’t require much energy), can have a negative impact on our health. Dr Claire Fitzsimons, Lecturer in Physical Activity for Health and PAHRC member is an expert on sedentary behaviour, and recently contributed to the Chief Medical Officers’ guidance on sedentary behaviour.  She explains more: “People with higher levels of sedentary time across their day are at increased risk of poor physical (for example, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers) and mental health. If you can, then replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity (including light intensity activities) and also regularly interrupting sedentary time, even if just for a few minutes, has the potential to protect us from these negative health effects.

Much of PAHRC’s research on sedentary behaviour is focused on identifying ways to support individuals to reduce and break up sedentary time. Dr Ailsa Niven, Senior Lecturer in Physical Activity and Health and member of PAHRC, is a psychologist who focuses on behaviour change in her research. She explains more: “We know many factors influence health behaviours, but to reduce our sitting behaviour at work we think it is important to increase awareness of the consequences of too much sitting, highlight the short term-benefits (it feels great to stand up and stretch!), and find easy ways to incorporate changes into our working days to help break our habits of sitting for long periods.” 

If you would like to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting, Ailsa and the PAHRC team have identified some simple steps to help:

1) Firstly, make a commitment to reducing your sitting time across your working day (for example, write it down on a post-it and put it on your computer screen, or share your plans with your work team).

2) Next, figure out what you are going to do, and when and how you will do it.  Start with small changes, and be specific. Could you stand or even walk for some meetings? Could you stretch for a couple minutes after a meeting or while waiting for the kettle to boil? Could you set an hourly reminder on your phone to stand up (and put your phone somewhere you need to walk to get it)?  We work closely with Paths for All, and they have created some helpful videos to encourage us to ‘ditch the desk’ – these one minute movers provide examples of some small movements that can help break up our sitting.

3) Finally, pause at the end of your week and review how it has gone. Recognise where you’ve been successful, and reflect on what might have hindered you, and how you could try a different idea (for example, were you too ambitious? – maybe try smaller changes? Did you forget? – can you set a prompt or reminder? Could you do more?).

This month the PAHRC team are undertaking research with University of Edinburgh staff who are working at home. They want to understand more about how much sitting we are doing, how sitting relates to our health, and to identify the best ways to support colleagues in reducing their sitting behaviour.

If you are currently working from home, and would like to find out more, or participate in this study, then please follow this link for further information, and to complete the research questionnaire.  There is a chance to win one of five £50 Amazon gift vouchers as a token of appreciation for your time.

The summary findings of the study will be shared with the Home and Hybrid Working Group, Health and Safety, Human Resources and Centre for Sport and Exercise to identify strategies to support colleagues as we continue to adjust to our new ways of working.  Please get in touch with Ailsa Niven if you have any queries or comments.

*We recognise and appreciate that there may be reasons why some colleagues need to sit or are unable to change their posture

Find out more about PAHRC on their website.

Image: Emilija Ranjelovic/GettyImages