February 2024: I Sing The Body Electric

Although computers are an integral part of our daily lives, transforming how we work, communicate, and entertain ourselves, it’s become well-understood how the dangerous endemic rise in sedentary behavior and prolonged static postures harms our bodies.  Many studies over the years have confirmed these prolonged periods of sitting and repetitive motions have significant adverse effects on our health, well-being and productivity. 

In titling this article containing Best Practices for mitigating the deleterious effects of prolonged static postures, we laud the remarkable work of poet Walt Whitman who’s famous poem, “I Sing The Body Electric“, explores the miracle we recognize as the human body.

In our case for safety professionals, your intrepid author’s steadfast attention is myopically focused on exploring a remarkable large-scale research project, started just a few months ago, involving tens of thousands of people working on their computers.

Ahead of exploring that project, let’s decisively inventory serious health issues cited in an article at Better Health (from the Australian government) which inventories well-documented effects of prolonged static postures such as are the norm while working on our computers, “The dangers of sitting: why sitting is the new smoking“.  While you may not prefer the article title, the content is very well done, based on irrefutable medical science.

The Columbia University Medical Center Project

Having laid a foundation of the very real effects of prolonged static postures, courtesy of the Better Health article, we take brief pause and consider the harmful impacts on employees and the organizations they work for, from unmitigated prolonged static postures.  

Such palpable impacts include “unnecessary and preventable” personal health problems, productivity impairment, unnecessary healthcare expenditures, financial loss, reportable injury cases and more.

Let’s pivot our attention to The TED Radio Hour and NPR‘s consummate reporting (Body Electric) on a project recently undertaken by Columbia University Medical Center Lead Researcher, Dr. Keith Diaz, and team in New York.  The multi-part reporting, in podcast format, is easy-listening and highly recommended.

Precipitating this project, Columbia University Medical Center Lead Researcher, Dr. Keith Diaz, and others had published this study, Breaking Up Prolonged Sitting to Improve Cardiometabolic Risk: Dose–Response Analysis of a Randomized Crossover Trial, showing that five minutes of walking per half hour largely mitigates the ongoing damage.  This is certainly consistent with similar studies conducted around the globe in recent years.

Cro-Magnon uninformed managers shouldn’t expect to lose 40 minutes a day from an employee’s time as the goal is a target and any progress towards this particular goal which yields palpable ROI.  The impacts from breaking up prolonged static postures on health and productivity is remarkable.  This is “working smarter” instead of the obsoleted old school of “working harder“.  Many of the world’s most successful companies are already tuned into this Human Capital Optimization which benefits employees as much as their employers.

The initial study cohort was small in size, however, a follow-up project including roughly 20,000 people has further supported results.  Beyond clear beneficial health impacts, the fatigue and emotional impacts were pronounced.

While there’s no substitute for listening to the report on the project, some takeaways include:

Commenting on the work, lead researcher Dr. Diaz shared: “What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine,” Diaz continued “While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the work day can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

We offer kudos to NPR, Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Diaz and the others who have earnestly assembled and conducted this work.

While this study and project are illuminating, it’s important to consider multiple studies about any topic.  Fortunately, on this topic you will find many irrefutable studies confirming physiological and psychological benefits of breaking up prolonged static postures.

For smart employers, it’s all about productivity and the bottom line achieved through helping employees to share in the responsibility for a comfortable and healthy experience while working on their computers.

In this case, this project was one of several studies done in recent years in different locations around the world by top-tier organizations who have researched the important beneficial impacts of periodic movement while working, to break up prolonged static postures such as those involved with using computers for our work.

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