Stand up and be counted: promoting reductions in workplace sedentary behaviour

This week marks the launch of the ‘On Your Feet Britain’ challenge – a national health promotion event organised by the Get Britain Standing campaign and the British Heart Foundation to raise awareness of the risks of prolonged sitting and to challenge people to get off their chairs and move more.

Jemma standing deskThe issue of sedentary behaviour in the workplace is a hot topic within DECIPHer.  In our Cardiff office we have recently invested in sit-to-stand desks for our staff and last autumn we organised a Health Challenge Wales Evidence for Policy seminar to discuss the latest evidence regarding the associated health risks and effective interventions for reducing workplace sedentary behaviour. Over 100 delegates attended, representing public health research, practice and policy, and occupational health and human resources staff from over 50 organisations across Wales. A summary of the discussions was provided on the DECIPHer website after the seminar. The development and evaluation of interventions to promote physical activity is an important focus of DECIPHer’s work, and is one of our four priority research areas.

Robert Sage, Active Travel Programme Manager at Sustrans Cymru, attended the seminar on sedentary behaviour and is keen to promote the ‘On Your Feet Britain’ challenge within his own workplace, but also through working with other organisations:

“At Sustrans our ‘business’ is promoting walking, cycling and sustainable travel, so cycling to work comes with the territory. Active commuting is one way to reduce the time you might otherwise spend sat down, in a car or on a bus. We are also ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’, depending on your perspective, that our offices are on four levels, with the toilets, kitchen and printer all on different floors, so there is a built-in need to move around the building and use the stairs on a regular basis. However I can still find myself sat at a desk for more than an hour without moving, during which time my posture gradually goes from fairly upright to downright slumped!”

The human body is designed to move, and it is this prolonged time spent sitting that has been linked to negative health outcomes such as an increased risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as all-cause mortality. According to research presented at our seminar, adult office workers in the UK spend on average 8-10 hours sitting down on weekdays, and 63% of this takes place at work. The good news is that there is growing evidence to suggest that taking regular breaks in sedentary time may reduce these risks. For example, in large scale observational survey studies, an increased number of breaks in sedentary time have been shown to be associated with lower waist circumference, lower systolic blood pressure, higher HDL-cholesterol levels, and lower blood glucose and blood insulin levels. In addition, laboratory studies have shown that breaking up sitting time every 20 minutes with light or moderate activity can have beneficial effects on blood glucose and insulin levels – potential key mechanisms through which sedentary behaviour may contribute to negative health outcomes.

There is a need for more evidence on effective workplace interventions for reducing sedentary behaviour; as an area of research this is a relatively new field. Whilst some studies suggest that the use of activity permissive workstations such as sit-stand desks can reduce overall sitting time by around 1.5 hours a day, the evidence is mixed and requires further investigation.  So what can people do to combat sedentary behaviour if their working environment is not so ‘activity permissive’? ‘On Your Feet Britain’ challenges employees to make some very simple changes to their working day in order to convert some of their sitting time to standing time, including:

  • Standing and take a break from your computer every 30 minutes
  • Using the stairs
  • Having standing or walking meetings
  • Standing during phone calls
  • Eating lunch away from your desk
  • Walking to your colleague’s desk instead of phoning or emailing them
  • Standing at the back of the room during presentations
  • Using a bathroom/kitchen on a different floor


Why not visit the website to find out more, download some resources and consider taking part in the challenge to see how much you can reduce your sedentary time?


About the author: Dr. Jemma Hawkins is a Research Associate at DECIPHer and PHIRN, the Public Health Improvement Research Network.


Images: Photo of conference delegates – Britt Hallingberg; photo of Jemma Hawkins at her stand up desk – Natalie Richards

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