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Out of hours exercise doesn’t mitigate health risks from sitting at work

A new study shows that it’s going to take a lot more than an afternoon gym session to counteract the “active couch potato” phenomenon.

Here’s yet another reason for us to pile our office chairs into a heap and set them alight. Researchers have warned employees that physical activity outside of work does little to counteract the negative health implications of being overly sedentary at work.

Researchers from Deakin University in Melbourne say that “uninterrupted sitting constitutes a risk factor for chronic disease that is independent of the risks associated with insufficient physical activity.”

Basing their research off 222 desk-bound workers and 121 managers, the researchers are calling their findings the “active couch potato” phenomenon. An active couch potato, by their definition, is a person who meets the minimum exercise recommendations but spends much of their work and leisure time sitting.

The report found that “desk-based employees and managers do not perceive occupational sitting as unhealthy when it is accompanied by sufficient leisure-time physical activity”. It’s a dangerous misconception and one that employers should address.

Stand up for your health

One change employers can make – other than fitting out their offices with standing desks (which would likely improve employee’s health and perhaps their productivity levels) – is to take an educative approach and address employee assumptions.

The researchers suggests organisations implement programs at work to ensure employees are aware of the potential harm they could be doing to their health.

When tracking the perceived benefits of shaking up our sedentary work life, those surveyed said they were more inclined to think of musculoskeletal issues and workplace performance rather than chronic health problems. Also, both employees and managers were found to have concerns regarding the cost-productivity implications that come with combating workplace sitting concerns. This in itself is a huge problem.

“Comments about workplace breaks causing disruption and worker resistance highlight the need for workplace interventions to be inclusive and consultative,” say the researchers.

They also clarify that their “recommendation must be tempered by the fact that [their] study’s vignette-rating approach was limited in terms of relying on self-reports concerning hypothetical, not actual/personal, scenarios.”

Ban the chairs

During ‘Steptember’ this year (no, that’s not a spelling error. It’s a month dedicated to reaching 10,000 steps each day) coworking space WeWork trialled meetings rooms with no chairs for a week, opting instead for treadmills so employees would keep themselves moving while discussing the important business of the day.

While not everyone would enjoy breaking into a sweat in the workplace, and there are perhaps less awkward ways to go about this, it’s a good example of a business that’s thinking about this progressively.

Some designers have also got chair-less offices in their sights, but their alternatives might not fix our penchant for sitting, in fact, it could make it worse.

Swiss design company Vitra has proposed ‘Soft Work’, a couch designed to replace the traditional desk and chair combo. According to their website: “As work is no longer tied to a specific location, new behavioural patterns have developed, which are gradually finding their way into the office. For example, the sofa has become a place on which to work – even though it is not necessarily suited to this task from an ergonomic viewpoint.”

Image: via Vitra.


With some ergonomic tweaks and office appropriate flourishes, Vitra feel they have designed a piece of office furniture suitable for the workplace of the future. I don’t know about you, but I’d be preferencing an afternoon nap over a budget review if I was using one of these.

The medical antidote

Doctors and the media alike have been speaking of the health impacts prolonged sitting can have for years. We’re increasing our chances of metabolic disease, diabetes, cancer, memory loss/cognitive decline, heart issues, obesity and so much more.

So, how do we combat this? Do we, as my colleague suggested, make sure we can squeeze a few jumping-jacks in every 20 minutes or shall we replace all meeting room tables with treadmills, à la WeWork, in order to bring our impending death to a grinding halt (or to at least ensure we live into our golden years)?

Medical experts in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggest that we should be getting up every half hour. Their research is based on 7,985 participants over 45-years-old who were asked to wear an accelerometer which would track their physical movement.

The participants were split into various groups – smokers, alcohol drinkers, and those with other health impacts – and when researchers followed up four years after collecting the results, they found that 340 of them had died. I’m sure it’s not surprising to find out that many of these people had belonged to the “sitting for too long” category.

“The researchers can’t say exactly for how long or how often people should be taking breaks from sitting during the day, but they did find that sitting for ‘60 to 89 and 90 or more minutes was associated with a greater risk of all cause mortality,’ while sitting in ‘1 to 29 minute bouts was associated with less of an increased risk,’” says Shelby Lorman for Thrive Global.

Another alternative, as HRM has previously reported, is to make health and fitness part of your company’s ethos. Much like the recently buzz around a Japanese company that pays their staff to sleep at night, a New Zealand-based company has offered financial incentives to those willing to ride their bikes to work every day.

As discussed above, this alone is unlikely to reverse or prevent damage from an all day sit-fest. However, by implementing a wellbeing practice like this, you’re able to show employees that you care about their physical wellbeing. They might then be more inclined to continue this pattern throughout the workday, and utilise the company’s standing desks and yoga classes, or opt for a walking meeting around the block instead of the traditional sit down coffee.

Now, set a few timers on your phone to remind yourself to get up for a stretch.  Your life depends on it.

Keep up to date with the latest workplace health and safety requirements with AHRI’s elearning modules on WH&S topics including ergonomics and work-life balance.

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Too true. Through a sedentary work style, lack of exercise and poor nutrition choices, I was diagnosed with Diabetes 2 last year and was sitting at 40% bf. My liver was about to fail and I was a 30 year old who was unable to walk properly and who was expecting to have very short life. I now exercise a lot and eat properly. While my own choices did contribute quite heavily to my medical issues, the style of work also influenced my health decline. I have now reduced my bf to around 10% and my a1c tests are much… Read more »


I think most workplaces and employers know the pitfalls of sitting for long periods of time, but it’s a matter of knowing just how important it is. It’s almost a ‘silent killer’ or ‘invisible killer’. If someone breaks their arm, others will see it and offer sympathy and assistance. If someone is slowly dying due (in part) to their sedentary work habits, not many people will notice before serious internal damage is done. Work with your OHS officer and provide information and support regarding this issue, and advocate for change in your organisation. Employee safety and well-being should not be… Read more »


The headline for this article is not reflected in the body of the article by scientific data – except from some very generalised comments about approximately 5% of people in a study of over 45s had died, which is completely in line with expectations given th Sat this included smokers etc. More importantly, articles like this which catastrophise a situation do more harm than good. Any suggestions to burn the office chairs is once again implementing an extreme solution to a serious problem, thereby creating a different serious ssue. Many in the health industry have also known that standing for… Read more »

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