We’ve all heard sitting is the new smoking, associated with higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and similarly undesirable diseases. And while most of us would concede we need to, and could, move more during the day, pinpointing how and when is the issue.

Remedies such as sit to stand desks and smart watches to track activity have done much to counter sedentary working, yet even these can have drawbacks. Brett Pollard, Sustainability Leader of design firm Hassell, says once a person is interrupted - whether by a whirring desk or pinging watch - it can take about 23 minutes to regain concentration.

That’s not to say moving makes concentrating impossible. The bottom line is to make sure productivity is not hampered while doing so, Mr Pollard says.

Striking this balance can be enormously beneficial: walking meetings have been found to increase divergent thinking (a method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions) outcomes by 60%. “Stanford University researchers found creativity is boosted with as little as a 5-minute walk,” says Duncan Young, Head of Workplace Health and Wellbeing at Lend Lease. “Doing this successfully comes down to developing a range of walking routes to suit everyone.

“Short walks at normal pace inside a building or outside boosts creative inspiration. Standing meetings are another great idea for posture change, but only for meetings up to 20 minutes.”

Remember, sitting for prolonged periods is not countered by your daily run or gym session either, no matter how vigorous. In recent years extensive studies have found moderate to vigorous exercise either before or after work, even if done most days of the week, does not protect from the adverse effects of sitting hours on end without (truly) budging from the chair.

Our minds also incur the wrath of sitting for too long. A research team from the University of Tasmania surveyed around 3300 government workers over a period of four weeks and found those who sat all day, even if they hit the gym after work and were physically active in their off hours, still showed relatively higher rates of anxiety and depression symptoms than workers who sat for less than 3 hours a day.

So how much should an office worker move?

“The jury is still out on exactly how much movement is required during the day,” Mr Pollard says. “But what we do know is that people need to alternate between sitting, standing and walking throughout the working day.”

Mr Young says incorporating activity into a sedentary day is difficult due to our “sitting centric society”. “We know breaking up sitting during the day and introducing walking and standing meetings is good for us, but the challenge is how to make it a reality.”

With this in mind, Mr Young’s general guiding principle for businesses is to employ the powerful yet simple tag-line to reinforce the importance of movement, which is ‘stand up, sit less, move more’.

“This tag-line has been used in workplaces to essentially build incidental movement into the working day,” Mr Young says.

The principal can be broken into three elements:

  • Increased movement – increase the number of steps taken at work targeting 5000 to 7500 steps during the working day, building on the 10,000 steps per day recommended by the Heart Foundation for good health.
  • More transitions – Increase the number of ‘sit to stand’ transitions. “Ideally employees should change posture or move every 30 minutes and stand more often, spending at least two hours of their day standing or stepping (this could increase to four hours over time).
  • Ergonomic choice – For example, Lend Lease fosters its culture of standing up, sitting less and moving more with workplace design: “Our kitchens and bathrooms are strategically placed so our people must walk to reach them,” Mr Young explains. “We have internal staircases and our meeting rooms are fitted to encourage standing. Walking meetings are also encouraged.”

Research released in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 recommended office workers need to stand, move and take breaks for at least half their eight-hour day. They should spend those four hours in “light-intensity activities”.

Mr Pollard concurs, his own research finding that an office worker should aim to incorporate four hours of movement a day to prevent long-term health consequences.  Some surveys recommend less time moving overall, yet regular breaks:  International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity released research in 2014 that concluded it was enough for sedentary workers to get up and move for five minutes every half hour.

Research also shows that it requires a good deal of vigilance to stick to a routine of daily activity when in a sedentary job, warns Mr Pollard. “Successful, long lasting programs to increase movement are few and far between,” he notes.

Also working against us is our natural propensity to avoid incidental movement. Anecdotal evidence shows people are adept at developing ‘work arounds’. “I've heard of cases where people have brought in their own small bins so they can avoid having to walk to central waste stations and others drinking less water to avoid trips to the 'loo',” Mr Pollard says.

You have been warned!