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Public Health Ergonomists Offer Move More Month Tips for the Workplace

Image of Public Health Ergonomists Offer Move More Month Tips for the Workplace. Many people experience long durations in seated postures throughout their day in work activities, leisure activities, and during commuting time. Defense Public Health experts said in addition to planned workouts, taking a two to three minute break from sitting at your desk every 30 minutes is great for your heart health. (Defense Health Agency Public Health graphic illustration by Andrew Leitzer).

The modern-day office workplace is often accompanied by large amounts of sedentary time that can be detrimental to good health. This issue impacts many office workers, including service members and the Department of Defense workforce.

Kelsey McCoskey, an ergonomist with Defense Health Agency Public Health, said April’s Move More month offers people a chance to think about how to compensate for long periods of inactivity during their workday.

“People may not realize how much time they spend in seated or inactive postures,” said McCoskey. “Many people experience long durations in seated postures throughout their day in work activities, leisure activities, and during commuting time.”

According to academic papers published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity and Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism in 2020, sedentary behavior, defined as time spent seated or reclined while expending little energy, can contribute to numerous negative health outcomes, including heart disease, cancer risk, metabolic disease risk, and even death.

The Department for Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week, in addition to two full-body, strength-training sessions.

Individuals who go to the gym or work out daily and meet the HHS physical activity guidelines may still experience an increased risk for negative health effects if the remainder of their day is sedentary.

Sedentary behavior and physical activity affect our bodies through different mechanisms, which is why the amount of time someone spends seated compared to being active during the day can drastically influence their health, said McCoskey.

The HHS daily physical activity recommendations only account for about two percent of daily waking hours, leaving the remaining 98 percent of the time for sedentary activity.

In a 2017 article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers found that inactivity, defined as not meeting the physical activity guidelines, is not the same as sedentary time. They also found that increasing moderate to vigorous physical activity by half an hour per day, while beneficial to health, does not significantly impact total sedentary time throughout the day.

McCoskey said ergonomic experts are encouraging individuals to try and replace or interrupt daily sedentary time with light or moderate activities in addition to the time spent exercising. These “sedentary breaks” often include nonexercise activities of daily living, such as doing chores, walking, or even going up and down the stairs. She reminded workers to, “regularly change position, stretch, move from seated to standing, or go for a brief walk to give their body a break.”

McCoskey’s recommendations are supported by several systematic reviews published in academic journals like Sports Medicine, the British Journal of Sports Medicine and the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. These academic journal reviews showed that increasing daily nonexercise activities contribute to the total daily light (and sometimes even moderate) activity recommendations.

McCoskey said this nonexercise activity best serves as a supplement to moderate or vigorous physical activity but can substantially benefit health due to its potential to improve heart health and longevity.

The question is, where is the sweet spot for sedentary breaks?

John Pentikis, ergonomics branch manager at DHA-PH, recommended breaking up sedentary time every 20–30 minutes for 2–3 minutes.

“Standing is not enough, ideally you need to move around to promote blood circulation through the muscles,” said Pentikis.

These recommendations agree with current observations published in Sports Medicine in 2022, that showed breaking up sedentary time with light activity may help to improve cardiovascular health to a greater extent than standing.

The best recommendation is “the more, the better,” said Pentikis. The more activity workers can incorporate into their day, the better.

“Visit a colleague at their desk rather than replying to a message via email,” said Pentikis. “Use the printer, water fountain, or restroom furthest away from you, or use the staircase instead of an elevator.”

Joanna Reagan, a Public Health nutritionist at DHA-PH, suggested walking meetings, where “two to three people join you on a short walk to discuss work options. Or join a virtual meeting via phone and walk and talk simultaneously. Obviously, it depends on the meeting and the people.”

Whatever “exercise snack” workers choose, striving to break up prolonged sedentary time and meeting daily physical activity recommendations will help avoid the negative health effects associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

Interested in additional physical activity resources? Check out the DHA-PH webpage on active living or the training and performance resources by Human Performance Resources by CHAMP.

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Last Updated: April 24, 2024
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