Don't just sit there: Staying seated all day linked to health risks

DTE Energy financial analyst Ardalia Jackson uses a demonstration Walkstation, a low speed treadmill under a height adjustable work surface.

DETROIT -- In an 18-year career at the University of Michigan, where she's a customer service center supervisor in the payroll department, Jackie Adams figures she's done a whole lot of sitting.

And that scares her.

So when her department installed a treadmill desk, Adams started using it to fit a little bit more exercise into her day. And when she heard about studies that showed that long periods of sitting can be dangerous to a woman's health, Adams stepped up getting up at work.

She tries to spend 30 minutes each day on a treadmill desk installed at the office. She urges co-workers to walk while they talk. She stands up while taking phone calls.

"I heard that those who have a sit-down job take years off their lives. That scared me. I came in here and said, 'Everybody walk at lunch. Everybody walk on the treadmill,' " recounts Adams, 43, of Saline, Mich. "We can't help it if we have desk jobs, but I don't want to die early because of it."

Research released last fall found that women who sat for more than six hours a day had a 37 percent increased risk of premature death, compared with 18 percent for men. Those results stayed the same even when factors such as an individual's diet, amount of physical activity and smoking were taken into account.

Dr. Alpa Patel, senior epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, is the lead author of that study, the largest on how sitting affects mortality. The study was based on information from surveys of 123,000 people who participated in the study between 1992 and 2006.

Females who sat the longest and exercised the least had twice the risk of death compared with women who recorded more activity and less sitting. Under similar circumstances for men, there was only a 50 percent greater chance of death.

Patel can't explain why sitting may be more hazardous to women's health. It's unclear whether the varying results are caused by gender or if there's some other influence at work.

"We don't understand the biological reason why it might be more detrimental to women than men."

Patel now walks to talk to colleagues instead of using email, and she sends some of her documents to a printer in a different room at her Atlanta workplace to force herself to move more. She sits on a balance ball in her office rather than a chair. And she doesn't use instant messaging to communicate with colleagues.

"I walk to their office to take a quick break," she says. "There are very small changes that you can make that collectively add up."

Patel says she always had a hard time sitting still in front of the TV. Now, she channels that extra energy into multitasking endeavors. She tries to fold laundry while watching her favorite shows. She knits. And she's lost 40 pounds in the past two years.

Office furniture manufacturers are paying attention to the research. Grand Rapids, Mich.,-based Steelcase, for example, in 2007 introduced treadmill desks -- Walkstations, which combine an adjustable desk surface with a slow-moving treadmill. The Walkstation sells for $4,399.

Steelcase has sold more than 2,000 of them to corporations such as Humana, Google, Kraft Foods, eBay and General Electric, says Steelcase spokeswoman Katie Hasse.

The Steelcase treadmill desks were inspired by Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic. Levine approached Steelcase with research that showed how lean people consume more calories by incorporating more movement into everyday activities -- even by fidgeting.

"Many corporate customers have purchased multiple units as part of wellness initiatives," says Hasse. "We launched the product to better serve our customers after multiple studies which point to mixing up time spent sitting with intermittent standing as a way to engage metabolism, keep nutrient and oxygen flowing to the brain as well as burn a few more calories than remaining seated for long periods."

WALK TO TALK: Every other instant message or two, get up and go tell the person instead of messaging or emailing them. Communicate like it's 1989 -- before there were computers on every desk.

STAND UP: Anchored to your desk for a conference call? Stand while you're participating instead of sitting, says Dr. Alpa Patel, who has studied the effects of too much sitting. You want to mix sitting and standing. Standing still for long stretches also can promote problems such as sore feet. Mix it up.

THE HOUR RULE: Do something that gets you up from your desk every hour.

PARKING PERK: Patel tries to park farther away from stores to get in a little more walking. "If you add five minutes of activity to your day every hour, at the end of a 10-hour workday, it's almost an hour," she says.

REARRANGE FOR MORE RANGE: The doctor who helped inspire Steelcase's treadmill desk, Dr. James Levine of Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, suggests that companies promote walk-and-talk meetings with co-workers instead of conference room gatherings. Or, suggests WebMD, move trash cans from worker cubicles to central locations to promote a get-up-to-toss-trash movement.