On the move

A sit-stand desk, which is a height-adjustable platform put atop the desk itself, is user-operated. Though ergonomically beneficial, the desks are used relatively rarely, says Mark Benden, director of the Ergonomics Center at the Texas A&M department of public health.

Use of technology has led to increasingly sedentary work lives for many Americans and others around the world. A group of researchers at Texas A&M University have conducted research that indicates that technology itself can play a role in forming an active response to inertia.

In a study, researchers installed software to remind a test group to switch their sit-stand desks from sitting to standing, or vice versa, and found that reminding the participants to stand for 10 minutes for every 30 minutes of sitting proved more effective than merely having a sit-stand desk.

“What we understand now is that the human body heals itself through movement and activity,” said Mark Benden, director of the Ergonomics Center at the Texas A&M department of public health. “We want people to ambulate, to get up and move around, to take more steps throughout the day. When they do sit, we want them to sit less often and for less duration at a time.”

In a phone interview, Benden said research indicates that sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time can begin to have harmful impacts.

Benden said that in recent decades people have, on average, become far less physically active as tasks have become automated or semi-automated.

“We’re sitting in front of some kind of screen being entertained or working, but we’re really not that physically active, and it’s taken its toll on our bodies,” Benden said.

“We want people to be active,” he continued. “Exercise is a bonus — we love for everybody to exercise and get the proper amount each week — but we’re struggling just to get people to move at all. We’ve really become inactive.”

Benden said the Ergonomics Center works both in research and in product development to improve worker health and safety, as well as performance. He described the center’s work as being part of a “data-rich” field. 

A research team led by Benden and Parag Sharma, a recent doctoral graduate of A&M’s School of Public Health and clinical data scientist at Humana, tested a new computer-based software intervention to remind participants to use their sit-stand desks.

The study, which was published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, looked at the use of computer-prompted reminders as a method of determining whether the frequency of desk position changed.

A sit-stand desk, which is a height-adjustable platform put atop the desk itself, is user-operated. Though ergonomically beneficial, the desks are used relatively rarely, Benden said.

Benden said that switching between standing and sitting uses more energy than either activity by itself.

“We were able to build a sensor that could connect to software that would monitor how often you raised and lowered your desk, and how many times per day, and how many minutes spent in the sitting or standing position,” Benden said. “It’s great, because we now have an objective tool to say something that’s supposed to help us is actually helping us.” 

In the study, the researchers began by installing the software, which reminded users to change the position of their sit-stand desks.

The first phase of the study, which lasted three months, monitored workers’ computer use time and the desk’s position. The second, two-month phase of the study put the software into action and reminded participants to stand for 10 minutes after every 30 minutes of sitting.

Researchers found the software proved effective in getting office workers to stand more often than they did pre-reminders. In phase one, participants changed desk position once every two days; in the second phase, they changed, on average, a desk position each day. 

It also found that observing others’ habits proved an even more effective change agent than did the tech reminders. 

According to a Health Science Center press release, the study was the first to measure objective data about sit-stand desk usage. 

“You can be inactive no matter what your career choice is or what your job type is — and you can also be active,” Benden said.

Benden argued that in coming decades, people will look back on present research as the beginning of a long-range effort to use technology to combat inertia. 

“We know that technology has really been a clear culprit in this inactivity that we’ve experienced,” Benden said. “But now, because of what’s happening today with research like this, we’re starting to see that very same technology become part of the solution.”

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