Enterprising Wellness: Risky Business

What’s happening to us as jobs now require less physical exertion than 50 years ago?

Part III in a series about standing while working and its health benefits.

I believed I had no reason for waist-size worries provided I could look down and see my feet. They remain mostly visible today, although I have altered my workday routine to reverse my progress toward the 40-inch mark. Not for reasons of vanity or appearance, but because carrying too much fat around the waist increases health risk.
The waistline is certainly where my weight gain has settled. The trim 30-inch waist I sported in the 90s is a memory. Now I wear a 34-inch waist in a good pair of pants, but a 36 feels so good that I buy a 38 (to paraphrase a line from a favorite movie of my wife’s). However, reducing my midsection is causing me to spend more time out of my chair. My situation is not unique.
 Working with Wasted Weight
In some important ways, the places where we work are working against our health. Our workdays are less physically engaging than they were 50 years ago. A study published in 2011 found that weight gain has increased in the U.S. as the number of jobs that require moderate or light physical activity has decreased.
Quoting from the study’s summary, “In the early 1960s almost half the jobs in private industry in the U.S. required at least moderate intensity physical activity whereas now less than 20% demand this level of energy expenditure.”
The data revealed workers are burning fewer calories while at work, making the workplace a driver of obesity, at least in the United States. Researchers contend that without making changes to workday behaviors reversing this trend is unlikely.
Waistline Battlefield
What health experts in the U.S., Mexico, Australia and New Zealand — the countries leading the developed world in obesity — blame are foods high in calories consumed by people without the need for them. A paper prepared in 2006 by the University of Minnesota offered a calorie equation: “for every 3,500 calories consumed in excess of calories expended a person can expect to gain one pound.” It also projected the process in reverse: lose one pound by using 3,500 calories more than consumed.
Harvard’s School of Public Health warns that the weight gained in the abdomen behaves in particularly bad ways. They call it “visceral fat.” This stuff keeps busy releasing cells that increase the bad cholesterol and triglycerides, increase the risk for diabetes and raise blood pressure. The UK’s National Health Services agrees. 
What the NHS tells men is that a waist size of more than 37-inches raises the risk of health problems. In women, the risk increases at a waist measurement of 31.5-inches. Gaining inches beyond these benchmarks only multiplies the health risks, says the NHS.
The unkindest consequence of obesity is increased possibilities for metabolic syndrome, a gateway to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart attack or stroke.
The Mayo Clinic website sums up metabolic syndrome this way: it is a set of conditions that can lead to serious health problems. The conditions include increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Having any of these does not mean an individual has metabolic syndrome, but any one of these conditions is undesirable.
Arresting Waistline Risk
To quote from my paper, “There is a growing consensus that factors contributing to obesity exist inside the workplace, compounding eating and lifestyle habits outside the workplace.” Barbara Ainsworth is among those who believe that the workplace is a missing piece of the puzzle, contributing to inactivity and “creeping obesity” in ways not yet fully understood. Dr. Ainsworth told the New York Times, “When people think of obesity they always think of food first, but it is high time to look at the amount of time we spend inactive at work.”
The American Medical Association has also realized the connection between workplace inactivity and health risk. The AMA adopted a policy in the summer of 2013 saying that employers should make alternatives to sitting available to employees. An AMA Board member said, “Prolonged sitting, particularly in work settings, can cause health problems…”
We are all aware to varying degrees of the health risks of being overweight or obese, but what the design community can understand is the unique role design can play in shifting to active workplace concepts. Where can workers be attracted toward walking between floors instead of using elevators or escalators? How can sit-stand equipment make workstations respond to workers who want to spend part of their day working while standing? Ultimately, design that improves the health of the workers improves productivity, which underscores our highest hopes for what design can accomplish in businesses and organizations.
However, workers are more than the sums of their measurements in pounds, pressures, and levels. We can put the body on a program of improvement that might or might not address workplace stress and anxiety. What stress and anxiety are doing to workers, and the role design can have in the next post.
“Establishing Sit-Stand Wellness Cultures in Large Enterprises” can be downloaded from the Interior Architecture homepage at aia.org.
Stephen Witte is a freelance writer, speaker, and researcher specializing in the contract industry. The IIDA Knowledge Center and the AIA have accepted his research. His current projects involve workplace health, renewable energy, and business trends.