Employees who spend most of their time tied to a desk need to take steps to avoid health problems, according to experts in the emerging "science of sitting down."
Dr. Tim Church, of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., called inactivity at work "a big player in the obesity epidemic," and if a recent experiment by the Chattanooga Times Free Press is any indication, a person's walk of life has a lot to do with that level of activity.
Office jobs, the number of which has soared in the last 30 years, can pin people to desks and create a sedentary pattern for half of a waking day, Dr. Church explained.
"Back in the day exercise was kind of silly because everybody got so much exercise in the workplace," Dr. Church said. "Our bodies are evolved to be physically active."
Steve Bordley, CEO of Trek Desk Inc., which sells desks designed so users can walk on a treadmill while doing their work, said his product and others like it are designed based on the "caveman theory."
Over thousands of years of evolution, the human body was designed to walk 30 to 35 miles a day, but in the last 100 years steps have been engineered out of modern life, he said. Without the movement, the body can't work the way it is designed to.
"Every function in our body is predicated on movement, and we've taken that away," Mr. Bordley said. "When you sit, there are a lot of things that happened to your body and none of them are good."
He cited studies linking everything from obesity to back problems with constantly sitting in chairs.
"The basic message is chairs are the enemy," he said.
For those well-acquainted with their phones, computer screens and office chairs, squeezing recommended amounts of physical activity into each day can be a challenge, according to Tina Lankford, who works in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Physical Activity and Health Branch. Other workers, including letter carriers and manual laborers, might not have a problem meeting the guidelines, she said.
"I would think there are certain occupations where people meet the guidelines and other occupations where people don't," she said.
Chattanooga letter carrier Norm Knott is a testament to that. He's dropped about 10 pounds since he took over a walking route downtown a year ago. The Dunlap, Tenn., resident said not all of his loss has been from the job, but some of it surely has been.
"I've probably lost two or three pounds because of the job," said the trim postman, who walks an estimated nine miles each day on the job.
For those with low activity at work, Ms. Lankford advised extra exercise outside of work. The Rev. Pauline Pezzino said she takes a 10- to 15-mile bicycle ride once a week that helps make up for a sedentary work routine.
"It seems like I move around a lot, but maybe I don't," Mrs. Pezzino said after learning she took the fewest steps of the participants. "I'm moving a lot of steps but in a small area of space."
No perfect number
Dr. Catrine Tudor-Locke, director of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Pennington, is on the cutting edge of "the science of sitting down" and has worked extensively with step-counting devices called pedometers.
She said there is no universally endorsed ideal number of steps per day, but there is a "general acceptance" within the scientific community of a 10,000-step daily goal. Most people in the United States take around 6,000 per day, though few if any studies have been done to determine how many of those are taken at work, she said.
When told the results of the Times Free Press experiment, Dr. Tudor-Locke said the comparisons coincided with what she would expect, but she was surprised at how many steps the walkers took. Some of the numbers could have been inflated because of extraneous movements or vibrations, she theorized, explaining consumer grade pedometers are not as precise as their more scientific cousins.
"There's nothing shocking," she said.
Before finding out the results, Joan Randall, director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Obesity and Metabolism guessed landscapers, mail carriers and construction workers would have high step counts, while teachers, drivers and engineers would have low counts. She was surprised to see attorney Jonathan Turner average more than 8,000 steps a day.
"My guess is that's an attorney that chooses to be active," Ms. Randall said.
Mr. Turner said he'd never thought about the number of steps he takes but chooses to walk to lunch most days and walks the three blocks from his office to the courthouse at least twice daily. Once at the courthouse he takes the stairs rather than the elevator.
"I'm just constantly walking all over from court to court," Mr. Turner said. "I'm not the kind of attorney who sits in an office."
The good news for desk dwellers is that little decisions like Mr. Turner's can make a difference, according to Ms. Randall, who has a stand-up desk similar to the Trek Desk. Taking the stairs or walking over to someone's desk rather than e-mailing can are classic examples of such decisions, she explained.
"People can have the same jobs and one can burn 2,000 more calories just by how they choose to do it," she said.
Employers are beginning to take steps to promote activity, according to Ms. Lankford.
Many worksites offer amenities for "alternative commutes" including bike racks and showers for those cycling into work, she said. Others subsidize gym memberships or provide on-site rec rooms. Even without a treadmill desk, every decision can be a small step toward a healthier lifestyle, Ms. Lankford said.
"All the active living things add up," she said.
BY THE FOOT
Twenty five local people were asked to wear step counters during their eight-hour work days. The totals from a few days were averaged and adjusted for overtime before being compared with other participants.
Results ranged from 19,391 steps by letter carrier Norm Knott to 2,951 steps by Rev. Pauline Pezzino.