On the circle of health hype, what was bad becomes good, then it becomes overrated, then it becomes bad again. That’s what happened to barefoot running and multivitamins, and it’s where the purported dangers of “too much sitting” seem to be headed.
But, like all hype cycles, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle rather than on the peaks or in the valleys. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at an interesting study just published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that finds jobs that require a lot of standing to be much worse for your health than jobs that require mostly sitting. The new study is a surprising counterweight to the ubiquitous “sitting is the new smoking” message (which I’ve written about numerous times: “Are the Dangers of Sitting Overhyped?” and “Does Sitting Really "Cancel" the Benefits of Exercise?” )—but it’s not as simple as it may seem.
The researchers, led by a team from the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto, followed 7,320 people (half men, half women) for an average of 12 years, collecting initial information about their job type and then using government health records to determine who developed heart disease. Overall, 3.4 percent of the participants developed heart disease; the rate was 4.6 percent in men and 2.1 percent in women.
The job types were divided by whether they predominantly involve sitting; standing; a combination of sitting, standing and walking; or other body positions like crouching and bending.
The headline result is that people working in standing jobs were about twice as likely to develop heart disease as people working in sitting jobs. This relationship held true even after adjusting for various confounding factors like body mass index, other physical activity, the physical demands of work, and so on. (The combination jobs and other body position jobs weren’t significantly different from the sitting jobs.)
This finding shouldn’t really be that surprising. Here’s what I wrote back in 2011, when concern about too much sitting was first emerging: “Indeed, prolonged standing has been linked to a long list of health problems over the years: most commonly varicose veins, but also night cramps, clogged arteries, back pain and even (according to one study) ‘spontaneous abortions’—enough to make you think twice before throwing away your chair.”
So the elevated risk of heart disease for standing jobs like sales clerk, cook, and machine operator is real, and something that people should be aware of. It’s likely a result of blood pooling in the legs, and the increased stress of pumping it back up to the heart. The solution? Make chairs or stools available so that people can sit when they’re tired.
But before we dismiss the risks of sitting around all day, it’s worth pointing out that just because sitting all day may be better than standing all day, that doesn’t mean sitting is flawless. Maybe the best option is sitting most of the day, but ensuring you get up frequently to move around, or perhaps use an adjustable desk to break up the day with some standing breaks.
In fact, you might wonder whether the combination jobs, which involved sitting, standing, and walking, might produce the best results of all. Overall, those jobs were no different from sitting all day. But if you break it down by sex, there was a dramatic difference. The men with combination jobs were 39 percent less likely to develop heart disease compared to men with sitting jobs; the women, in contract, were 80 percent more likely to develop heart disease.
The study can’t answer why this sex difference occurs, but there may be some hints in the list of most common occupations. For men, the combination jobs tended to be things like courier drivers and retail managers; for women, it was nurses, kindergarten and elementary school teachers, and cashiers—positions with distinctly different movement patterns and stress levels.
Personally, as someone whose job entails sitting at a computer for most of every day, knowing that I’m theoretically better off than a short-order cook isn’t really what I’m after. I still want to optimize my health within the parameters of my job—and as I’ve written before, I find the admittedly preliminary evidence that excessive sedentary behavior has negative health effects (beyond the mere absence of exercise) to be intriguing enough to pay attention to.
But hey, let’s let the cooks take a seat now and then too.