Standing may be worse than sitting, according to a new Ontario study

Experts sound in on how to strike the right balance

Experts sound in on how to strike the right balance

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Looks like standing may be more problematic to our health than we once thought, according new findings published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study, conducted by the Institute of Work and Health found that workers who are required to stand for prolonged periods of time are twice as likely to have heart disease than those workers that predominantly sit.

The lead facilitator of the study, Peter Smith, and a team of researchers followed 7,300 heart disease-free Ontario workers for 12 years (from 2003 to 2015) and compared sitting-to-standing habits to see if and who developed heart disease. Participants of the study responded to the Canadian Community Health Survey (2003), which gathered a range of information such as where people lived, their gender, pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, whether they smoke or drink as well their physical activity outside of work. Respondents had to be working more than 15 hours a week, and hour variations of workers were adjusted accordingly in the findings.

"We wanted to shine a bit of a light on this group of workers that are in a fixed posture, but instead of sitting, which is a bit more comfortable, they have to stand for prolonged periods of time," Smith told CBC Life. "We're talking four, five, six hours during the day."

Smith sees this prolonged standing activity as worrisome since "gravity is working against you" and blood tends to pull on your legs increasing venous tension. This tension can then cause issues when blood is trying to get back up to the heart. So, while prolonged sitting isn't ideal, the study addresses the sizeable portion of the population—10 per cent of the labour market, according to Smith—that stand regularly. Professions like bank tellers, sales clerks and service workers are among this population.

"If you feel like just by standing a little bit more you're reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, well the evidence at the moment doesn't really support that," explains Smith. "You need to be active in order to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and that includes activity both inside of work and outside of work."

Activity outside of work is a central component to the research says Smith. So is "trying to understand how the design of work can lead to long term health consequences." He hopes to change perception and give workers more autonomy over their sitting-to-standing habits and how their body position is during daily tasks. According to Smith we need to "create an environment inside and outside of work so that everyone has the same opportunities to be active."

The study also found prolonged standing affected men and women differently. "Among those sitting-standing-walking occupations we found an increased risk of heart disease among women and a decreased risk among men, which goes to show that it's not just about your activity at work but other dimensions of the work environment," Smith adds. 

Lindsay J. Davey is a registered physiotherapist of 10 years. As the owner of Toronto Physiotherapy, which specializes in orthopaedics, Davey treats patients with posture-related injuries often. Davey notes that neck and shoulder tension as well as carpal tunnel and tendonitis in the shoulder, elbow, wrist or thumb are common work related injuries for desk users or those in computer-based occupations. Standing jobs, in retail or food service for example, see more lower back pain, knee pain and plantar fasciitis. "We see swelling in the lower legs in both types of workers, depending on a host of factors," says Davey.

"Given that standers can experience venous pooling and sitters can get swelling and symptoms in the lower legs due to poorer circulation and flow with the knees been at 90 degrees, we always recommend ankle pumping and calf raises to mitigate these effects," she adds. "Activating the muscle pumps in the legs is a great way to improve venous return and help reduce the cardiovascular health risks from sedentary/static positions."

Davey, like Smith and his researchers, agrees that mobility in the workplace is central to maintaining optimal function of the circulatory system, preventing blood clots and promoting oxygen delivery to the body's tissues. "Some people find it useful to set a regular alert on their phone or computer for regular breaks in positions," says Davey. "Or they wear a FitBit to stay motivated to get up and move around throughout the day."

"I would argue that an ideal work environment would have position variety built into it so that workers were not in static positions, be it standing or sitting, for extended periods of time," furthers Davey. Environments that adopt standing desks, for example or "prioritize the importance of a chair that is fit to the desk and the user" or having a cushioned mat during standing sessions, can be beneficial adds that, like Smith noted, give the worker autonomy over their body position on the job. And, with the rise of freelance culture and more and more workers behind computers throughout various times of the day and night, autonomy will remain an important consideration in one's work life. Who knows what stresses and injuries will be reported should there be a study of this nature conducted over the next 12 years.

Smith just hopes these findings will prompt people to think about the "stresses and environment associated with work, not just injuries, but the way we work."

Kathryn Kyte is an arts, culture and lifestyle writer based in Toronto. She has previously contributed stories to the Huffington Post, ET Canada and Yahoo. Follow her @loadedlove.