Humans are creatures designed to run, jump and generally be in motion. Every part of the human body is geared towards mobility, and yet in recent times, humanity in general has slowed down, in many cases almost to a halt. The consequences of a more sedentary lifestyle are wide-ranging and all the more prominent in modern society where the office and computer have become the standard hub of activity.
With over 16 years of experience in the field of physiotherapy, Musculoskeletal and Sports Physiotherapist Samantha Bonnici is very familiar with all manner of physical issues and their sources. However, the proportion of clients who come to her from industries not usually linked to manual work has climbed over time. “There has definitely been an increase in physical ailments related to sedentary lifestyles. Unfortunately, nowadays adults tend to work longer hours and do much less physical activity due to a busier and more hectic lifestyle that does not warrant sufficient time for physical activities. We have also seen an increase in teenagers and young adults who spend too long a time sitting in front of a screen with minimal physical activities, and this then results in a multitude of physical problems,” Ms Bonnici says.
This rise in the amount of health issues linked to lack of exercise is not solely a local issue. Many health services globally have reported rising amounts of medical cases linked to physical inactivity, manifesting themselves in a wide array of ailments. The British Heart Foundation (BHF) reported last year that one in six deaths globally could be linked to high levels of inactivity, and the links between the strength of the immune system and levels of exercise are well known. “The WHO (World Health Organisation) has officially recognised physical inactivity as one of the top 10 leading causes of death and disability. A sedentary lifestyle doubles the risk of heart problems, type 2 diabetes, obesity, increases the risk of certain cancers and risks of high blood pressure, osteoporosis, depression and anxiety,” the physiotherapist continues.
While these cases are most often linked to a more severe lack of exercise, even less habitual inactivity can lead to a range of conditions, and as Ms Bonnici explains, many of the activities connected to office life can be to blame for this. “The most common physical complaints are neck pain and back pain, which are mainly due to excessive time spent sitting. These can also be present with nerve pain or what is commonly known as sciatic pain. We also see several RSI (repetitive strain injuries) in the upper limbs such as tennis elbow and carpal tunnel pain that are due to long hours of typing and using a mouse. Neck pain, headaches and jaw pain are also commonly seen in typists and people who work with more than one screen and spend a lot of time working on a computer,” she affirms.
One of the largest groups affected by these issues are people who work in managerial positions, as executives naturally spend less time moving about the offices than many of their employees. This, combined with other common damaging factors, such as the stress that inherently comes with such positions and dependence on unhealthy food necessitated by lack of time, could create a dangerous cocktail of issues. However, unlike the other issues, low activity levels can be far more easily remedied. The WHO puts a minimum activity level for adults under the age of 65 at 150 minutes a week of moderately intensive activity, or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise. It also states that even minor amounts of movement can contribute to a significantly better quality of life in general.
While there is clearly some personal responsibility for making sure that enough exercise is included in each working week, Ms Bonnici feels that companies should also shoulder the task to some degree. “I encourage companies to review and revise their employee’s job and task design to minimise sitting as much as possible. A 2012 study published by VicHealth in Australia showed that 30 minutes daily exercise is ineffective if counteracted by long hours of sitting during the day. Therefore, the key message here is to aim to reduce prolonged sitting as much as possible during the day,” she maintains.
The benefits of taking control of countering sedentary habits in businesses are extensive, for both companies and the wider economy. The BHF estimates the global cost to public health services generated by cases linked to physical inactivity at a staggering £35 billion each year, and the knock-on effect on the global economy is estimated at an incredible £42 billion (about €48 billion). “It is estimated that office-based employees spend about 80,000 hours sitting in their lives. This increases the amount of physical problems, which results in a higher number of sick days and therefore a loss of workplace productivity. Research has shown that increasing work breaks and providing a more standing-workplace culture does not result in a decrease in productivity, and has huge benefits for the workers,” Ms Bonnici continues.
Malta, like many other small island nations, is more prone to citizens leading overly-sedentary lifestyles due to inherent reductions in mobility. WHO statistics for Malta list coronary heart disease as the cause of almost a quarter of deaths nationwide, a condition with physical inactivity listed as one of the key causes. For this reason, it can be necessary to change entire cultures to combat the issue, including those within the workplace, and in particular, with more traditional-style systems.
A few minor adjustments to the amount of mobility in the office can make a significant dent in the time spent sitting during the day. Overall, even a little activity is better than none, and it could be the smallest changes that have the biggest effect on individual health, overall staff health and, as a result, the health of the company as a whole.
Increase working health with Sam Bonnici’s suggested steps, workable in most businesses.
· Teach employees to vary tasks during the day to encourage a change of posture. Plan your day well and alternate sitting down activities with other tasks that require less sitting.
· Ensure a standing-friendly culture at work by introducing standing desks and encouraging a standing meeting area. The use of headphones enables various types of workers to stand up whilst taking calls.
· Walk over and talk instead of emailing colleagues.
· Use the stairs instead of the lift where possible.
· Eat lunch away from your desk. Preferably get out of the building and incorporate a short walk into your lunch break.
· Provide showers and changing facilities to encourage workers to cycle/walk to work.
· Remove bins, printers and water systems from individual offices or desks and move them to a central area to encourage people to walk and stand more often.
· Organise a weekly yoga, Pilates, Zumba and/or HIIT (High-intensity interval training) class and encourage people from all levels to attend regularly.
· Increase breaks and encourage standing up, walking and generally moving the body.
· Organise standing (or walking) meetings.
This article originally appeared in The Commercial Courier