Bureau met bureaustoel en laptop
Bureau met bureaustoel en laptop

New interventions to sit less: ‘Stop getting coffee for your colleagues'

Most people are by now aware that sitting at your desk all day is not particularly healthy. Yet existing interventions, such as sit/standing desks and smartwatches with reminders to stand up, seem to bring about very little lasting change. Psychologist Pam ten Broeke investigated where our sitting behaviour comes from, and how we can actually change it. She will defend her PhD thesis at Radboud University on 22 June.

Our bodies are not made to sit all day, yet that is precisely what we do for much of the day. Although our distant ancestors also often sat, over the centuries, our sitting posture has become increasingly passive and therefore unhealthy. Sitting for most of every working day of your life can lead to reduced circulation and increased pressure on your spine, which in turn may result in obesity, cardiovascular disease, and back and neck pain.

Disturbing smartwatch

Ten Broeke studied the psychological aspects of sitting, and why existing interventions do not work. ‘Your smartwatch may tell you to get up more often, but if you often get these notifications when you're in the middle of a meeting or watching a movie, you will learn to ignore them. We also see that most people stop using their sit/standing desks after a few months. How can we make these interventions more effective? That is what we have been exploring from a psychological perspective.’

‘We found out that people don't sit down because they want to, but as a way of accomplishing something else. If you need to send an email, you sit down somewhere with your laptop. But if you then get thirsty, you get up to fetch a glass of water. It is the action that determines your attitude. This may sound logical, but it is substantially different from how people approach exercise, which is something you do at a set time of the day, and very consciously. So smartwatches that try to make sitting behaviour into something very conscious and active actually go against human nature.’

Stop getting coffee for your colleagues

To help people sit less and get up more often, new interventions are needed. Ten Broeke: ‘For example, agree with your colleagues to work standing up in the morning, or set up the office in such a way that you encourage people to get up more regularly. You can already take steps yourself. For example, instead of making one big teapot for the whole day, walk a few extra times to make smaller cups of tea. And colleagues who offer to fetch coffee for others mean well, but it's a lot healthier if everyone gets up to get their own coffee.’

Ten Broeke and her colleagues studied the sitting behaviour of several hundred people with office jobs, or with cardiovascular disease. Participants were fitted with activity meters and followed for an average of four working days. The study revealed that office workers spend a lot of time sitting especially in the morning, and that later in the day they switch more often between sitting and standing. ‘Identifying why people switch between sitting and standing makes it possible to better encourage them to do so more often.’

Contact information

For further information, please contact one of the researchers involved or team Science communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl).   

Behaviour, Health & Healthcare