How sitting at a desk increases obesity risk

Lady sitting at her desk

For many living in the western world, gaining weight has never been easier. With the invention of technology and gadgets designed to reduce physical exertions, and unhealthy fast food available on nearly every street corner, we’re using up less energy and instead piling on the pounds. As such, it comes as no surprise to learn that a study published in the journal, PLoS One, found that desk bound jobs are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

The study aimed to investigate the difference in calorie expenditure in the workplace today, compared with 50 years ago. Due to the huge switch from labour intensive work in the 1960s to more sedentary jobs, it was found that today’s workers are moving less than ever before. Jobs requiring workers to be physically active have declined from 50 percent of the workforce to just one in five. The net result means workers are using around 140 fewer calories each day.

According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Timothy Church, from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, La., “If we’re going to try to get to the root of what’s causing the obesity epidemic, work-related physical activity needs to be in the discussion.”

He went on to say, “There are a lot of people who say it’s all about food. But the work environment has changed so much we have to rethink how we’re going to attack this problem.”

The researchers admitted it was unlikely the amount of physical activity once seen in workplaces would ever be replicated in the modern office. However, they said employers should provide encouragement for their employees to increase their physical activity by offering subsidised gym memberships, for example.

But it’s not only desk bound lifestyles that are responsible for making us gain weight. Modern offices conspire against us when it comes to eating a healthy diet. Even those who bring in a healthy lunch can find it hard resisting the endless supply of treats doing the office rounds. Who can say no to the slices of birthday cake on offer, or the colleague returning from holiday, armed with edible goodies?

On top of this, staff often keep their desk drawers full of handy, but often high calorie snacks to sustain them during the day. And workers who pop out to grab a bite to eat, often return with unhealthy fast food and eat while sitting at their desk.

Mayo Clinic researchers recommend office workers try to incorporate a specialised treadmill-ready vertical desk so they can walk while they work. They estimate that office workers who walk instead of sitting while working at their computers could lose between 44-66 pounds a year, which is a significant amount of weight for anyone.

If you were considering the option of a sit stand desk for the purpose of weight control, it's unlikely to make any meaningful difference. According to a study, there's little difference in energy used up whether sitting or standing whereas briskly walking significantly increases energy expenditure. However, a sit stand desk does have other benefits, especially for those with back or spine health concerns.

While modern offices are equipped with the technology and furniture designed to make our working lives more efficient and comfortable, long sitting times may result in unwelcome weight gain as a side effect. Standing while working may help burn off a few extra calories. However, a brisk walk during the day together with changing daily eating habits is likely to be more effective at preventing weight gain while sitting at a desk all day.