Last reviewed 28 August 2015

We have a fundamental problem as it seems, most office jobs, and many factory jobs are sedentary, and being sedentary is very bad for our bodies. A recent report commissioned by Public Health England has found that office workers spend 75% of their working day sitting down — and the impact of this on our health can be anything from mild back pain to premature death from heart disease. This is serious stuff but “how can we change?” asks Gudrun Limbrick.

Offices, factories and other places of work are efficient because we are all in one place and spend little time having to move around unnecessarily. It makes sound economic sense to have everything we need to function within arm’s reach and all workers in a comfortable chair for the entire duration of the working day. However, while this is an efficient way to work, it is not an efficient way to keep human beings healthy. We need to move around to stay fit, burn up that canteen lunch and maintain a good posture.

Research by the British Heart Foundation has found that almost half of women and two-fifths of men spend less than 30 minutes a day walking around at work. And most of us even sit at our desks to eat our lunch.

One of the usual ways we have tried to tackle this problem is outside the workplace, encouraging employees to switch their usual car or train commute to a bike journey, a walk or a run. This has only ever been partially successful. Not all commutes are appropriate to do under our own steam — being just too long or too dangerous. A quick jog along the M25, for example, is never going to be a good idea. Workplaces also need to have showers and changing facilities so that people can get to their desks refreshed and fresh after their exertions. The real problem for many of us, however, is motivation — the extra time, preparation and willingness to go out in the rain has most of us climbing back into our cars before we have made much of an impact on our shoe leather. However, it has to be said, that even those who have the staying power to make their morning jog a regular thing are still sitting down for too long once they have got to work. The healthiest office is one that moves around regularly throughout the day so that any periods of sitting down are broken up.

Lunchtimes are another time traditionally targeted by employers with employees encouraged to get out and about at lunchtime. Perhaps exercise classes, walking groups or even a gym can be provided. These moves require both physical space and investment, as well as self-motivation, and while most of us would say that having done some exercise makes us feel better during a stressful day, stress often makes us feel unwilling to join in, in the first place.

What we need is arguably a new way of arranging the workplace and the working day to bring movement into the day more naturally than expecting everyone to go to a yoga class while they are champing down their sandwiches.

A number of methods are currently being tried in innovative workplaces around the country. The efforts most likely to raise a smile involve removing everyone’s chair and replacing them with an exercise ball. Yes, those large bouncy balls that are seemingly impossible to sit on. The efforts your body undergoes simply to keep you remaining seated do all sorts of wonderful things to your core muscles, improving your posture and burning off a few calories into the bargain. I would suggest that the success of this sort of venture is very much going to depend on the existing fitness of staff members (some people may well spend most of their first days and weeks on the ball, on the floor) and the character of the office. People are going to have to not mind a few laughs at each other’s expense and will have to learn to concentrate despite the peculiarities of their seat. Mind you, having a serious argument while bouncing towards each other on giant exercise balls is not going to be easy, so perhaps it will reduce all sorts of stresses in the office.

It is possible that a few practical changes could be made to encourage walking about that people may not even notice after a very short time. Taking away bins from under individual desks, for example, and exchanging them for one central bin means that people are forced to stand up regularly to walk to the bin. The stationery supplies — staplers, pens, paper clips, etc. — could all no longer be on desks but in one cupboard to which people have to walk. These are small changes which could, depending on the nature of the work being done, make a big difference to how often people leave their work station. Lift journeys could be limited with all those who are able, having to use the stairs at least twice a day. If drinks are no longer allowed at the work station but have to be consumed while standing at a counter, or by the water cooler, some people will get time on their feet they do not usually have. There are probably several possibilities like this in every workplace that could simply add a few more minutes away from our chairs every day.

There are also more fundamental ideas which can be tried. Some of these ideas are not new at all. For example, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin were all big fans of the standing desk. Some workplaces could be raised so that people have to stand to work. No one wants people to spend their entire days standing, any more than anyone should spend their entire day sitting, but it may be possible to mix it up a bit with some standing work stations.

For me, the winner has got to be the stand-up meeting. Where all participants are able, meetings are held with everyone on their feet. This not only breaks up a day spent sitting down and gets us all moving about, but can also have very positive impacts on the meeting itself. Stand-up meetings tend to focus the mind. Without the comfort of sitting down, participants tend to be more willing to move the meeting along at a good pace rather than ambling comfortably through it. But the real bonus of standing up is that many distractions are eradicated immediately. All too often, while sitting down, we look at our phones and lap tops, we doodle on notebooks, we take notes, duplicating the efforts of the minute-taker, and we shuffle through papers. How much better to have everyone standing, with nothing more than a glass of water, focused solely on what is being said?

It is not the role of an employer to nag an employee into being fit. But, by the same token, it cannot be good for an employer to provide a workplace that encourages people to be unfit and unhealthy. Working with the team to come up with ideas to get bums off seats is great for morale and potentially good for our physical health — and if it can also make our meetings more productive, it is a definite win-win.