We spend many long hours in a position that produces an equally high number of undesirable effects on our body: sitting. An office worker will spend 80,000 hours sitting at work during a lifetime. After retirement from work, many old adults’ daily sitting time further increases to 10 hours or more. To counter the negative effects of being sedentary, University of Groningen and UMCG professor Tibor Hortobágyi advocates an active office environment combined with minor adjustments in our daily routines.
Dozens of scientific articles appear daily about the harmful effects of physical inactivity. These studies confirm that inactivity or so-called ‘motor passivity’ is detrimental to the quality of life at multiple levels. Hortobágyi: ‘We know that hours of sitting behind a computer screen are associated with unfavorable physiological effects. The deleterious effects of long hours of sitting on a daily basis accumulate over time and combine to negatively affect a wide range of physical functions: body weight, blood lipids, insulin resistance, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, physical activity, muscle strength, and cognitive functioning. We tend to make typos, our attention wanders and we encounter memory lapses after prolonged sitting.’
Physical inactivity is present not only in the office but is becoming prevalent in our society. We tend to focus on the input (eat more) and tend to forget about the output (physical activity). Hortobágyi: ‘I often see people in restaurants even at the UMCG with overloaded trays. Because eating is fun, it is also hard to overcome the urge to snack in the office and at home. I admit that happens to me as well. The issue is that we forget about the other side of the equation: physical activity and exercise. Indeed, recent reports suggest that one third of children in the Netherlands ride to school not on their bikes but in their parents’ cars – a phenomenon unimaginable even just a few years ago. Research data thus seem to confirm daily observations: physical inactivity is creeping into every walk of life.’
Hortobágyi advocates two solutions to remedy the problem. One idea is to modify the office environment. The ‘active office’ concept can be attractive for companies and institutions that employ a high number of office workers who spend most of their time behind a desk. In an active office, the height of the desk is adjustable so that it is possible to work while standing for short periods of time. ‘Journalists at the Wall Street Journal and government offices in Finland also use office treadmills. Although these treadmills operate at very slow speeds, workers still accumulate meaningful number of steps and increase energy expenditure.’ The low level of physical activity does not compromise productivity. Instead it generates small health benefits.
A second solution that complements the active office is to make additional small changes in behavior at work and in daily life. Such changes produce small but physiologically significant increases in energy expenditure as a result of non-exercise-related physical activity. Place the trash bin on the far end of the office, use bathrooms on a different floor, take 1-2 minute walks in the building for breaks, use the stairs on your way to lunch and whenever it is possible, bike whenever possible and park the car further away. ‘We know that changing our behavior is difficult so always start with small and gradual changes’.
Tibor Hortobágyi (Budapest, Hungary, 1955) is professor of Movement and Health Ageing, a core theme at RUG and at the UMCG’s Center for Human Movement Sciences. His research focuses on the neuromechanical mechanisms that mediate adaptations to exercise in young and old adults and seeks the mechanisms of how quality of life can be promoted and maintained through physical exercise.
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