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Sitting is Bad for Health, and Business

March 14, 2014

The original article (and more great articles for entrepenuers) can be found at Business Superstar

Over the past seven years, I have noticed that the vast majority of my once-sedentary clients who begin an exercise program observe an interesting phenomenon: after only a few days of consistent exercise, they feel more energized and focused at work or in school. Apparently, these observations are not an isolated incident. A recent Gallup Poll of over 300,000 adults (18) reported that active, healthy employees were more productive at work than their counterparts with sedentary, less-healthy life styles.

The evolution of man kind. The end product should contain far more adipose and far less muscle tissue, however.

These statistics, however, beg the question of causation and correlation: are employees more productive because they are exercise and eat healthy? Or are productive employees more likely to lead a fit, healthy lifestyle due to personality traits or behavioral habits?

As a physical performance consultant, I tend to believe that fitness and healthy habits increase employee morale and result in a more engaged work place. But it is also my job as a professor of exercise science to comb through the relevant research and provide Business-Superstar with an unbiased review and employers/decision makers with evidence based suggestions.

The effects of exercise on cognition provide a very compelling argument that physical fitness training should be promoted as an essential component of nearly every occupation. Consistent exercise has been found to improve recognition memory (4), mood and symptoms of anxiety (5), and cognitive speed (1). In addition to increasing brain activity and the neurotransmitters involved in facilitating information processing, the enhancements in cognitive function with physical exercise occur concomitant to increases in brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) production in humans (3).

The changes in internal environment elicited during physical exercise may actually be just as essential to cognitive and physical health as the vitamins and minerals we obtain in foods. Neurons have been described as plastic, in that they are able to form or dissociate synapses (connections with other neurons within a network) based on information formation and retention (15). In other words, neuronal plasticity allows us to learn in all dimensions: spatially, cognitively and motorically (13).

BDNF has been shown to play a critical role in mediating plasticity within the memory center of the brain, the hippocampus. In animal models, BDNF enhances synaptic signaling and responsiveness, and increases the number of synapses and neuronal branching (17). By increasing BDNF levels exercise provides a mechanism to strengthen and form new neural synapses, and thus enhances our potential to learn and retain new information.

Although the effects of exercise on cognitive performance are clear, very few controlled studies have longitudinally investigated the effects of a corporate fitness program on health and productivity. In a one-year controlled study Pederson et al. (10) reported that both aerobic and resistance training improved markers of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health, but not employee perception of productivity. The participants had very high levels of self-perceived productivity (were highly engaged) at the start of the study, indicating that Pederson et al. may have obtained different results with a less engaged population of employees.

A second major concern involves “selection” bias whereby the individuals who volunteer to participate are already motivated and active. Indeed, over 50% of the subjects in Pederson et al. were classified as highly active. It is possible that if less motivated and/or less active employees participated then the effects of exercise on self-perceived productivity would have been different.

A review of the literature shows a strong trend between physical activity and work productivity. Pronk et al. (14) reported a significant relationship between moderate to vigorous activity, quality of work, and overall job performance. Interestingly, higher levels of cardiovascular fitness were directly related to rate of work production and extra effort exerted, suggesting that fitter employees are able to accomplish more with less decrements in performance over the work day. Burton et al. (2) reported a relationship between workplace fitness center participation and productivity.

In particular, employees who did not participate in on-site fitness were more likely to have issues with time management by 62%, output limitations by 112%, and overall work impairment by 41% due to health-related work productivity limitations. Additionally, non-participants had more health risks and spent nearly 2 more days on short-term disability than active employees. Therefore, exercise may also decrease employer costs by improving overall health and thus reducing paid sick leave, especially in employees with desk jobs.

Prolonged sitting is unquestionably bad for human health (9). Even when adjusting for body mass index, occupational sitting is associated with increased inflammation, dyslipidemia and risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer (12). In addition to lower energy expenditures, sitting results in reduced muscle tone of the lower limbs, which in turn decreases leg blood flow and results in the pooling of blood in the lower extremities. Consequently, this decrease in blood flow inhibits the formation of compounds that are protective against cardiovascular disease, such as nitric oxide and Nicotamide N-methyltransferase (NNMT) (16).

Prolonged sitting works great for Milton

Sitting may be considered an occupational hazard; however, reducing the risks associated with sitting is not difficult. Latouche et al. (6) reported that as little as two minutes of light activity every 20 minutes increased the expression of genes associated with enhanced insulin sensitivity and cardiovascular health, such as GLUT4 and NNMT, respectively. Miyatasha et al. (8) reported that accumulating 30 minutes of walking (10 times three-minute periods) during an eight-hour workday improved plasma lipids and measures of hypertension.

The takeaway message for business leaders is simple: taking a two to three minute walk every 45-60 minutes during the work day will decrease the risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic disease, which will reduce time and money lost due to employee sick days and medical leave. Moreover, McMorris et al. (7) reported short, acute bouts of low intensity exercise improved cognitive processing speed, so your employees will also think clearer following a short hourly walk when they get back to the desk.

Jason Cholewa, Ph.D.

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1. Angevaren M, Aufdemkampe G, Verhaar HJJ, Aleman A, Vanhees L: Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) 2008:CD005381.

2. Burton WN, McCalister KT, Chen C-Y, Edington DW: The association of health status, worksite fitness center participation, and two measures of productivity. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine / American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2005, 47:343–51.

3. Griffin ÉW, Mullally S, Foley C, Warmington SA, O’Mara SM, Kelly AM: Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiology & behavior 2011, 104:934–41.

4. Hopkins ME, Davis FC, Vantieghem MR, Whalen PJ, Bucci DJ: Differential effects of acute and regular physical exercise on cognition and affect. Neuroscience 2012, 215:59–68.

5. Jayakody K, Gunadasa S, Hosker C: Exercise for anxiety disorders: systematic review. British journal of sports medicine 2013.

6. Latouche C, Jowett JBM, Carey AL, Bertovic DA, Owen N, Dunstan DW, Kingwell BA: Effects of Breaking up Prolonged Sitting on Skeletal Muscle Gene Expression. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985) 2012.

7. McMorris T, Hale BJ: Differential effects of differing intensities of acute exercise on speed and accuracy of cognition: a meta-analytical investigation. Brain and cognition 2012, 80:338–51.

8. Miyashita M, Burns SF, Stensel DJ: Accumulating short bouts of brisk walking reduces postprandial plasma triacylglycerol concentrations and resting blood pressure in healthy young men. The American journal of clinical nutrition 2008, 88:1225–31.

9. Owen N, Healy GN, Matthews CE, Dunstan DW: Too much sitting: the population health science of sedentary behavior. Exercise and sport sciences reviews 2010, 38:105–13.

10. Pedersen MT, Blangsted AK, Andersen LL, Jørgensen MB, Hansen EA, Sjøgaard G: The effect of worksite physical activity intervention on physical capacity, health, and productivity: a 1-year randomized controlled trial. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine / American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2009, 51:759–70.

11. Pesce C: Shifting the focus from quantitative to qualitative exercise characteristics in exercise and cognition research. Journal of sport & exercise psychology 2012, 34:766–86.

12. Pinto Pereira SM, Ki M, Power C: Sedentary behaviour and biomarkers for cardiovascular disease and diabetes in mid-life: the role of television-viewing and sitting at work. PloS one 2012, 7:e31132.

13. Ploughman M: Exercise is brain food: the effects of physical activity on cognitive function. Developmental neurorehabilitation 2008, 11:236–40.

14. Pronk NP, Martinson B, Kessler RC, Beck AL, Simon GE, Wang P: The association between work performance and physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and obesity. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine / American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2004, 46:19–25.

15. Schinder AF, Poo M: The neurotrophin hypothesis for synaptic plasticity. Trends in neurosciences 2000, 23:639–45.

16. Thosar SS, Johnson BD, Johnston JD, Wallace JP: Sitting and endothelial dysfunction: The role of shear stress. Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research 2012, 18:RA173–180.

17. Vicario-Abejón C, Collin C, McKay RD, Segal M: Neurotrophins induce formation of functional excitatory and inhibitory synapses between cultured hippocampal neurons. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience 1998, 18:7256–71.

18. Yu D, Harter J: In U.S., Engaged Employees Exercise More, Eat Healthier. Gallup Inc 2013.


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  1. Exercise Empowers the Brain | Deakin SciCom 2014

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