I took a plunge into the modern world this weekend by using my Uber app for the first time in Boston to navigate my daughter's university graduation schedule of events. Without the glass barrier normally found in NYC cabbies, I had a chance to talk with the drivers and the conversation turned to the amount of time spent sitting on the job. Fortunately, most of these drivers were doing it part time between other jobs and school schedules but it prompted me to pause and consider the masses of persons who do sit all day in order to make a living. Does their health suffer?
Over 50 years ago data was published that is relevant to our hyper-connected society in front of computer screens. The rates of heart attacks were compared in the London Bus Study between the drivers who sat all day and the conductors who went up and down the bus to collect tickets. The researchers observed a rate of coronary heart disease (angina pectoris, heart attack, or sudden death) that was 50 percent higher in the drivers versus the more active conductors. Since then, monotonous sitting has been identified as a stress factor linked to increased heart disease risk and other databases have linked sitting occupations to all-cause and cancer deaths as well. What can be done to improve the health risk of those engaged in sitting jobs like the Uber drivers?
Data suggest that it may not take that much activity to reduce the potential harm from long periods of sitting. Even just one bout a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, presumably after hours from the job, was shown to reduce cardiac deaths in a large sample of individuals at risk for heart disease. In a brand new study, an analysis of 3, 200 individuals found that light activity performed for just two minutes an hour reduced the risk of premature death by a third.
Some jobs, such as office desk work, may permit realistic options for increased movement and better health outcomes. Treadmill desks, adjustable desks that convert form a sitting to a standing position, walking meetings, and even online free programs that lead workers through a brief workout at their desks are all important responses to our new understanding of sitting as the "new smoking." Websites have been created for those driving truck encouraging and guiding them to a healthier lifestyle and habits. Hospital programs featuring the use of pedometers to encourage walking have been designed for cab drivers and websites encouraging seated yoga movements for cab drivers exist. Some of these options might be translated to airline pilots who have also voiced concerns over their risk of cancer and other disease from long periods of required sitting.
Although our understanding of the health perils of long periods of sitting go back at least six decades to the London Bus Study, only recently has so much attention been focused on improving work environments to encourage regular movement and standing. It would be wise for those with jobs that have few options for movement to develop scheduled programs of walking and more vigorous exercise during slow periods, before and after shifts, and on any days off. Emphasizing healthy diets that are rich in colorful fruits and vegetables and low in hyper-processed Western options found along the road is critical to maintaining vitality. Abstinence from smoking, scheduling seven good hours of sleep, avoiding added sugars in sodas and energy drinks and learning stress management skills like breathing and meditation are all strongly advised. Although I would flip the advice of fitness guru Jack Lalanne who said that fitness was the king and nutrition was the queen of health, it would be wise for those with sitting occupations to take an uber jump in their health by building both practices into their busy lives.