Sit On This

Recent health reports have labelled prolonged periods of sitting to be as detrimental as smoking. However, innovative office design can help change the culture of sitting says design and fitness journalist Fiona McAuslan.

Picture a post depot in 1953: telephonists perch beside receivers and discuss the new queen's coronation, seated clerks file letters and gossip about Tommy Taylor, England's most expensive footballer. Weaving in and out of the office the postmen collect sacks of mail before marching briskly off on their rounds. This typical scene, repeated across workplaces throughout the UK, was one that a London epidemiologist called Professor Jerry Morris was studying with interest. Morris' work examined the difference in heart disease rates between sedentary workers and their more active counterparts. The postal clerks and the postmen were case in point. His was the first research into the link between disease and physical activity.

Sitting threat

When you think that the World Health Organisation was warning of the dangers of an inactive lifestyle way back 2007 it's pretty surprising it's taken until recently for workplace activity to really hit the headlines. And lately more bad news has added to the picture: a 2012 report published in the clinical journal Diabetologia concluded that it's not just lack of activity that carries an increased risk of disease and early death: it's actually sitting for long periods of time.

The report also said that even topping and tailing your day with a gym session is unlikely to cancel out the damage. It's no great leap to work out that office workers, with our long sustained periods slumped staring at spreadsheets, emails and internet cats are more at risk than most.

A quick online search reveals an internet awash with suggestions of how we can squeeze a bit of exercise into your working day, but you have to question the sanity of some of them. Doing bicep curls with a water bottle or lunging by the photocopier may do you some good but is bound to get you a few odd looks from your co-workers.

Active design

The one area that can make a real difference is in urban and office design. A good example is in New York, where the Centre of Active Design (CAD) fronts up the architectural and design movement called Active Office which aims at getting city people more active. Stairway to success A widely followed CAD's guideline states that focusing on stairs is one of the best ways to encourage movement in an office. Attractive, expansive stairwells all encourage workers to step up to the challenge of a short climb rather than waiting for the lift.

However, pinning your hopes on a staircase may work if you have the luxury of designing your own office block from scratch but how does the advice translate to a fit out?

Real life solutions

Active's interior designer Marion Brydson cites a concept called 360 degrees wellness that she uses when considering office design. “Office design is not just about the physical space, it's about considering all of the senses including auditory and the way using a space makes you feel."

Active uses design elements like creating activity hubs to encourage collaboration. Breakout areas work really well in getting people up and away from their desk and interacting in different areas of the office.

'We use hooded chairs to create private meeting areas, says Marion.

A simple but highly effective example is how the design team will place coffee machines by the copier to encourage interaction. “You might bump into other colleagues and end up on your feet talking for longer than you planned," says Marion, “This sort of relation building with other team members is important for well being."

For anyone who does spend extensive periods seated, Marion recommends the sit-stand desk as a key weapon in the fight against inactivity. “Sit-stand desks have been around for 10 years. In Germany and France stand height desks are standard. We're lagging behind in the UK but there's discussion that the UK government might make it legislation [for offices to offer them to staff] in a few years' time. Office managers should think about resident workers having a sit-stand desk."

While facilities managers might think the cost is prohibitive, adapting your workplace doesn't have to be expensive. “You don't need to put 100 per cent of desks into an office. You can keep a mix of workstations so people can hot desk and swap desks."

Innovations like these are all part of an arsenal of techniques that promote movement, making it essential to our working day. And that's something that would have made activity champion Jerry Morris stand up and cheer.

Check out the Active case studies to see more of our innovative solutions