To say that sitting is society’s next cigarette smoking might be a bit dramatic. More studies, though, are showing serious medical consequences from sitting for many hours each day. Prolonged sitting has been linked to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, herniated lumbar disks, colon, breast and endometrial cancers and more.
Even worse, these risks appear to exist whether or not we exercise.
A large portion of the population have a job that involves sitting at work most of the day. Running or lifting weights after work are clearly good ideas, but we must also find ways to break up periods of sitting and become more active during the work day.
Some of the ideas I shared previously about sitting at work could be useful:
- Using standing desks, or better yet, treadmill desks
- Walking across the building to talk to a colleague rather than sending an email
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
- Walking outside the building a few times each day
- Holding meetings while walking
Some workers (or bosses) might worry that these changes might decrease productivity in the office. Two recent studies show that the opposite effect might actually result.
Effects of walking on creative thinking
First, a study performed at Stanford University shows that walking boosts creative thinking. Researchers performed a series of experiments where participants tried to generate new ideas, alternate uses for objects and complex analogies. They compared the results between participants sitting inside, walking inside on a treadmill, walking outside, or being pushed in a wheelchair outside. The students walking created more novel ideas and responses, whether they walked outdoors or indoors.
“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking,” says one of the study’s authors, Marily Oppezzo, PhD, of Santa Clara University. “With this study, we finally may be taking a step or two toward discovering why.”
In fact, the late Steve Jobs and Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly held meetings while walking. In their paper, the authors conclude, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”
Effects of standing in meetings
In the second study, researchers from the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis compared productivity among groups of office workers. One group developed a recruiting video for the school and all the participants sat at a table with chairs, while the participants in the other group worked on the same project in a room with no chairs.
The participants in the group who stood in the meetings tended to be more excited and engaged than the participants in the group that sat. Standing participants also appeared less protective and territorial of their ideas, leading to better collaboration.
Lead author Andrew Knight feels that standing meetings can decrease the harmful effects of sitting as well as improve the ways people work together. “Organizations should design office spaces that facilitate non-sedentary work. Our study shows that even a small tweak to a physical space can alter how people work with one another,” Knight remarked, in an article in Medical News Today.
Also listen to this podcast discussion:
Episode 148: Why is sitting harmful to your health? (starts at 6:01)
Take home messages about sitting at work
So we can add two more ideas for cutting down on our sitting at work. If you are working on a project and find yourself stuck, take a walk. You might boost your creativity and develop ideas you hadn’t considered. And rather than mindlessly sitting through meetings, hold them with small groups of coworkers while walking or standing.
You might have better results, and you will help your body in the process.
Marily Oppezzo, PhD and Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD. Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Published online April 2014.
Andrew P. Knight and Markus Baer. Get Up, Stand Up: The Effects of a Non-Sedentary Workspace on Information Elaboration and Group Performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online June 12, 2014.