The team also used data from a large survey conducted in England in 2012, which found that 30% of adults spent at least six hours of every weekday sedentary, increasing to 37% at weekends.

Taking into account factors like whether people smoked, their BMI and how much exercise they did, the team concluded that if sedentary behaviour was eliminated in the UK, the following percentages of deaths could be prevented:

  • 9% of colon cancer patients
  • 8% of endometrial cancer patients
  • 7.5% of lung cancer patients
  • 17% of cases of type 2 diabetes
  • 5% of cardiovascular disease patients.

One flaw in the study was that it did not investigate cause and effect. For example, ill people are likely to be more sedentary as a result of their illness - it may not be that their previously sedentary lifestyles caused their diseases. Additionally, some data used in the lung cancer calculations were from non-European populations, and estimates of the risks from sedentary behaviour were taken from a number of different studies, not all with the same research methods.

Why are people reluctant to move about at work?

Dr Keith Diaz, an expert in behavioural medicine at Columbia University (who was not involved in the study), said the apparent lack of effort by policy-makers to tackle sedentary behaviour might stem from concerns that it could decrease work productivity.

“Thus, the findings from this study are immensely important as they provide a strong economic case that public health policy changes to reduce workplace sedentary behaviours could be a worthwhile investment,” he said.

“Until we learn more about the benefits or risks of standing, the best advice that I can give for some concerned about their sitting habits is to sit less, move more, and move often.”

The typical office environment is not sympathetic to the human need to move. Computers tend to be set up on static desks, so we need to be seated to get work done. Working schedules follow a traditional 9-5 pattern with one break in the middle of the day, and open plan layouts mean employees can feel exposed, observed and therefore reluctant to get up and move.

The question is, does leaving your desk to go for a short, brisk walk reduce productivity?

While you may not physically be getting any work done during that break, you are moving your body, increasing your heart rate, stretching your muscles and giving your brain a rest. All of these things can improve health in the long run, helping reduce your risk of developing back pain or any other musculoskeletal disorders, as well as the long list of diseases we know to be associated with sedentary behaviour.

We recommend developing an active working culture at your workplace, which involves installing sit-stand desks and being vocal about the benefits of physical activity with use of resources such as our infographic about the benefits of taking microbreaks.

Remember, good health is about instilling good habits. It may require a complete shift in culture at your workplace.