Standing too much at work? It could double your risk of heart disease, study says

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Several recent studies have confirmed that prolonged sitting can reduce a person’s lifespan while increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, but not much attention has been devoted to the effects of prolonged standing at work, despite previous studies linking it to chronic back pain and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

A new research has shown that prolonged standing might increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. According to the researchers, standing too long can result in blood pooling in the legs, increased pressure in the veins and increased oxidative stress, which can all contribute to an increased risk.

The studyThe Relationship Between Occupational Standing and Sitting and Incident Heart Disease Over a 12-year Period in Ontario, Canada shows the adverse health impact of prolonged sitting. Researchers compared the risk of heart disease among more than 7,000 workers in Ontario, followed over a 12-year period, across different occupations.

The workers were divided into four categories: workers who mostly sit, workers who mostly stand, workers who use a mix of sitting, standing and walking, and workers who use other types of body positions such as kneeling or crouching.

The researchers found that those who primarily stand at work are twice as likely to develop heart disease as people who primarily sit. This was even after considering a wide range of factors including personal factors (age, gender, education levels, ethnicity, immigrant status and marital status), health, and the type of work being performed.

An elevated risk for people who stand at their job was still present after considering smoking, leisure time, physical activity, alcohol consumption and body mass index.

“In fact, the incidence of heart disease among those respondents who stood a lot at work (6.6 percent) was similar to the incidence of heart disease among workers who smoked on a daily basis (5.8 percent) or those who were obese (6.9 percent). This suggests that workplace wellness programs should focus on reducing prolonged standing at work, just as they target smoking and unhealthy diet habits, to curb cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Peter Smith, a senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health and associate professor at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the School of Population Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Australia, and one of the researchers of the study wrote in an article published on The Conversation.

Dr. Smith said that standing or variable desk is not harmful as people who use sit/stand desks do sit when they are tired. He said the focus of their study was prolonged standing at work.

“The opposite question, “Does standing a little bit more during the day reduce risk of heart disease?” is harder to answer and was not specifically examined by our study,” he said.

“The available research evidence suggests that while being sedentary in general is bad for you, the amount of time we spend sitting at work (distinct from sitting at home, in traffic, and so on) is not strongly linked with decreased risk of long-term conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

“To reduce the potential health impacts of sitting in general, you would likely need changes in overall energy expenditure. And standing a little more throughout the day (without at least walking in addition to the standing probably won’t achieve this.”

To reduce the risk, Dr. Smith said it would be wise to reduce standing time in certain occupations like those in sales and service works, cooks, food and beverage servers and bank tellers.

“With the exception of cooks, there aren’t specific reasons why workers in many of these occupations need to stand for prolonged periods of time. Rather, the need to stand in these jobs has more to do with the need to be seen by the public as being attentive, interested and polite. So most workers could still perform their duties using a mix of sitting and standing,” said Dr. Smith.

“As a result, greater awareness of the potential health effects of standing too long can help roll back this social expectation.

“And luckily for workplaces, in the case of prolonged standing, there are interventions that are known to be effective and readily available: They’re called chairs,” he said.

“Preventing long-term health conditions such as heart disease likely requires multi-faceted interventions, focusing on factors inside and outside the workplace. Reducing prolonged standing at work – and providing more flexible work environments in general – should be one of the aspects of work that are considered in the future.”

With several evidence showing that both prolonged sitting and standing could be harmful to health, engaging in physical activities and reducing sitting or standing time throughout the day should be given importance to improve one’s health. Employers should address sitting and standing times of workers and promote activities for workers that will encourage them to move during work hours.