Staying active is one of the best ways to help reduce your risk of back pain and help alleviate pain itself. Incorporating more exercise into your day can seem like a real challenge though when work, school, kids, partners and everything else makes claims on your time. A new study suggests a fairly simple solution: alternating between 30 minutes of standing and 30 minutes of sitting down at work. Does it really help relieve back pain, and will it harm your productivity?
This latest research, courtesy of scientists in Australia, found that office workers who spent a week switching between working standing up and working sitting down for half hour periods felt less tired and had reduced back pain and lower leg pain compared to when they spent the whole day sitting at their desks. Earlier studies have found that office workers spend around 75% of their day sitting in a chair, which has a significant effect on the risk of a variety of ailments, including back pain, cardiovascular disease and even diabetes.
The focus of this back pain study was two-pronged, with the researchers looking not only at the ability of this routine to relieve pain but also its potential effect on productivity. As any office manager knows, having your employees take a break every half hour to do jumping jacks or get some fresh air can really cut into available work time, while having people sit in a poorly lit, stuffy office all day is also detrimental to productivity (and health!).
The researchers recruited 17 men and 6 women and randomly assigned them to either spend their workday sitting or alternate between sitting and standing. Both groups used an electric adjustable-height workstation such as the Ergotron WorkFit-S 33-341-200 Dual Sit-Stand Workstation and the work desk was adjusted in height during standing and sitting periods. Participants wore physical activity monitors so that their sitting, standing and walking times could be recorded. The office workers were largely middle-aged (average age 48) and as the researchers were interested in the effects of being sedentary on markers for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, they recruited 15 overweight, and 8 obese participants. The routine was followed for five work days and then the roles were reversed during a second work week.
Questionnaires were filled out at the end of the working weeks to assess levels of fatigue, musculoskeletal comfort, and how productive they felt they had been. The workers also noted how well they liked the adjustable workstation. Those who switched between sitting and standing reported higher enjoyment (81/100) when using the workstation, compared to 64/100 in the seated workers.
Switching between standing and sitting resulted in an average fatigue score of 52.7, compared to 67.8 when sitting all day. Scores over 66 were considered higher than what a healthy person would feel. The sit-stand group had 32% fewer musculoskeletal symptoms in the lower back and 14% fewer in their ankles and feet compared to when sitting all day.
Focus and concentration were better during the days when people worked sitting down, but productivity was actually higher in those alternating between sitting and standing. Those in the sit-stand group also tended to be less impatient, and less irritable than those sitting all day. The decrease in fatigue reported when sitting and standing may also translate to increased productivity over time, and the reduced incidence of back pain and leg pain may also help workers to minimise sick days over the longer term.
How to Get More Exercise in Your Average Work-Day
This may be the first study to show clear improvements in back pain, leg pain, and fatigue, following well-documented reductions in sedentary behaviour in office workers. Standing is increasingly seen to be better for health than sitting, while moving around is even better than standing. This can seem tricky to do in an office setting but simply things can increase physical activity during the day, such as:
- Walking to talk to a colleague, instead of emailing or calling
- Using the stairs instead of escalators and elevators
- Heading further afield for lunch
- Standing up and walking around during a phone call
- Having meetings standing up or even walking around a courtyard outside
- Switching after-work drinks for a squash game, jog, or yoga class
Standing up and moving around during the work day can help decrease metabolic factors associated with increased inflammation, aid circulation for better tissue oxygenation and nourishment, improve emotional well-being, reduce pain, and also help prevent overtaxing of certain muscle groups that may lead to back pain, neck pain or other pain condition. Over time, increased activity also appears to reduce the likelihood of undesirable changes in bones and ligaments that may lead to spinal stenosis and back pain.
Thorp AA, Kingwell BA, Owen N, Dunstan DW. (2014). Breaking up workplace sitting time with intermittent standing bouts improves fatigue and musculoskeletal discomfort in overweight/obese office workers. Occup Environ Med. 2014 Aug 28. pii: oemed-2014-102348. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2014-102348. [Epub ahead of print].