Melissa Chin, Senior Corporate Planner at UHN stands at her desk from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day. (Photo: UHN)

At 11 a.m. for the last four months, Andrew Lypko and Melissa Chin have rolled aside their desk chairs and raised the computer screens and keyboards on their standing workstations. It takes only seconds to transform the station and then it's back to work as usual – except they will be standing for the next four hours.

Andrew, an analyst in Corporate Planning, and Melissa, a Senior Corporate Planner, stand each day from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.

"It started when Andrew and I read an article online that equated sitting for long periods of time with smoking," says Melissa. "We started thinking that it would be good to incorporate standing into our day because we work at computers and it's very easy to spend the majority of the day sitting."

A new study out of Toronto Rehab is solidifying Melissa and Andrew's decision.

Image of study author Dr. David Alter
Dr. David Alter, Senior Scientist, Toronto Rehab, UHN, is the senior author on a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine which explores the negative health effects of prolonged sitting. (Photo: UHN)

The study – published in the Annals of Internal Medicine – found the amount of time a person sits during the day is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and death, regardless of regular exercise.

"More than one half of an average person's day is spent being sedentary—sitting, watching television, or working at a computer," says Dr. David Alter, Senior Scientist, Toronto Rehab, University Health Network (UHN), and Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

"Our study finds that despite the health-enhancing benefits of physical activity, this alone may not be enough to reduce the risk for disease."

​Reducing sedentary behaviour

The meta-analysis study reviewed studies focused on sedentary behaviour. The lead author is Avi Biswas, PhD candidate, Toronto Rehab, UHN and the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, and the senior author is Dr. Alter, who is also Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto.

The researchers also found that the negative health effects of prolonged sitting are more obvious among those who do little or no exercise than those who do more exercise.

Future research will help determine what people can do, in addition to physical activity, to combat the health risks of sedentary time.

"Avoiding sedentary time and getting regular exercise are both important for improving your health and survival," says Dr. Alter.

 "It is not good enough to exercise for 30 minutes a day and be sedentary for 23 and half hours."

Dr. Alter says people should aim to decrease sedentary time by two to three hours in a 12-hour day.

Image of Andrew Lypko at his standing deskAndrew Lypko, Analyst in Corporate Planning at UHN, has noticed positive differences since reducing the amount of time he sits during the day, including having more energy. (Photo: UHN)

Andrew and Melissa say they have noticed a positive difference since reducing the amount of time they spend sitting.

"I've found that it feels like I have more energy, especially after lunch and I think it helps me focus," Andrew says. "I also like that I have someone doing this with me because it keeps me accountable."

How to get started

Dr. Alter has a few steps people can take to reduce sitting time:

  1. Monitor sitting times—once we start counting, we're more likely to change our behaviour.
  2. Set achievable goals – find opportunities to incorporate greater physical activity—and less time sitting— into your daily life. For example, at work, stand up or move for one to three minutes every half hour; and when watching television, stand or exercise during commercials.

Melissa and Andrew say they would encourage other UHN employees to try standing throughout the day.

"It gives you a lot more energy throughout the day and knowing there's definite health benefits is a great encouragement to keep it up," says Melissa.

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