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#Health

Extended Office Sitting is the New Smoking

Article October 7, 2019  |  Text by Markéta Miková Text by Markéta Miková

Why should you walk around while making phone calls at work? How can the floor you have at the office affect your fitness? What effect do computer keyboards have on your health? Ivan Struhár, an ergonomics expert from Brno’s Masaryk University, gave us answers to these questions and more in an interview for #MORETHANOFFICE.

Spending long periods sitting down when you’re at the office is often referred to as the new smoking. What’s its most harmful aspect? 

You’re right—it is. This is primarily related to the lack of movement over the course of the day. This deficiency is linked with so-called “chronic non-infectious diseases.” In other words, the ones for which people are mainly responsible themselves based on their lifestyle and level of activity. That’s because movement is by far the best prevention. The question is: how do we integrate it into the working space of, say, an office, to create a movement-friendly office?

As an ergonomics expert, are you able to answer this question? How does one get office workers up and moving?

Quite easily. When I go and tell you: “Do it because it’s good for your health!” then your initial motivation will be enormous. But no need to lie here about how long that will hold out. There are lots of slogans and recommendations like these, but experience has shown that they have hardly any long-term effects.

Ivan Struhár works as an ergonomics expert at Brno’s Masaryk University.

So what other routes would you recommend?

I see more hope here in, let’s say, subconsciously spurring people into movement activities—the kind where people are e.g. choosing the stairs instead of the elevator. Have you ever considered, for example, placing a picture by the elevator of food and drinks with as many calories as you’d burn by taking the stairs five times to the fifth floor? Another way to get people moving at the workplace is to use “dynamic work stations.” 

So… working and moving around while you’re doing it? But won’t that distract people from their work activities?

These stations let you e.g. slowly walk as you write an email or make a phone call. Expert studies have shown that physical activity in a form like this has no negative effects on cognitive performance. Overall, I’m mainly pointing here to the fact that when you’re working all day at an office, there’s a real threat that you’ll only walk 3,000–4,000 steps a day. And that’s very few. At least 10,000 steps is the recommendation.

Can office design itself somehow stimulate people’s motion?

Definitely! The work environment itself can support walking during short breaks. I have some practical experience here from one company where they had a carpet that looked like a running track installed in place of an ordinary floor. You could walk 80 to 100 meters from one end of the office to the other. The pedometer results showed up to 300% growth in average steps per day. And there are many such little changes that you can make; you just have to want to.

via GIPHY

All the same, office people tend to spend most of their working hours sitting at a desk. Why is this bad from the physiological standpoint?

Naturally a long-term static position doesn’t just influence our energy expenditure; it affects our posture as well. Today we know that during long-term sitting, a person’s small motor units are activated at a very high level. When you combine high muscle activation and a lack of relaxation—for example during, indeed, work at a PC—the risk of pain arising in the cervical spine is increased.

And what’s more, static muscle load isn’t the only problem here. We also see an increased burden on such things as the spine itself and its individual parts. Experimental studies have shown that intervertebral disc pressure while sitting can be up to 50 percent higher than the pressure while standing. This is another reason why office work can be so harmful to health.

So what specifically should we watch out for during desk work?

For example the very way that we sit is a problem: the height, depth, and tilt of sitting surfaces, and also the distance—which an employee should be able to configure, taking into account their anthropometric possibilities. But their employer should also be able to help them out here. The second most common defect lies in absolutely unfitting PC accessories such as mice and keyboards.

So these details have an effect on workers’ physical health as well?

Little things like these are an important part of the big picture. Many accessories don’t let the user maintain a “neutral position” for their hand, and when an employee uses them long-term, they're creating a problem for themselves without even knowing it. In our expert terminology, we call this Repetitive Strain Injury. Just think of how many times we all press a given key, or click a mouse button, every day.