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Standing at your desk? ‘Sucker!’ suggests University of Sydney study

Standing at your desk? ‘Sucker!’ suggests University of Sydney study

Media reporting of paper that saw sit-stand desks take off missed key recommendations, and a conflict of interest amendment

You’ve read the articles. You’ve seen the studies. It’s now common knowledge that too much sitting down isn’t good for you, linked to everything from heart disease, susceptibility to cancer and premature death.

Most of what we think we know about prolonged periods parked on our posterior comes from a set of guidelines aimed at office workers published in 2015, to promote the “avoidance of sedentary work”.

The paper – among other things – recommended the use of sit-stand desks as the perfect way to break up time rested on rumps.

The contraptions have now become commonplace in Australian offices – a motif of modernity and a caring employer.

But have we all been duped? Analysis of news articles covering the 2015 paper by University of Sydney researchers found there were some important recommended measures missed out by the media’s reporting.

And particularly worrying is the fact very few journalists picked up on an amendment made later to the original paper: clarifying that one of the authors just happened to be owner of a website that sells sit-stand work products.

“We are not suggesting Gavin Bradley skewed the sit-stand desk evidence in the guidelines,” the University of Sydney researchers write. “But the initial failure to disclose his interests is a concern.”

Taking a stand

The 2015 guidelines – The sedentary office: an expert statement on the growing case for change towards better health and productivity – were written by an international group of experts, and suggested a number of actions to address too much sitting.

Of the 58 media reports that followed, all reported the guidelines’ main recommendation to reduce sitting by two hours a day, and to replace the sitting with standing or slow walking.

“Almost two-thirds of articles also noted the recommendation that people should regularly break up seated work with standing, and that this could be done with a sit-stand desk,” Dr Josephine Chau from the University of Sydney et al write.

But few (nine out of 58) covered the other recommendations like the importance of changing posture, and guidance to avoid “long periods of standing still, which may be as harmful as long periods sitting”.

Commercial concerns

You can hardly blame reporters for failing to be aware of an important amendment later made to the original guidelines, by one of its authors, Gavin Bradley.

No reports mentioned his edit to “expand the disclosure of competing interests” which clarified that he is in the business of selling sit-stand desks.

“The revised version notes Gavin Bradley is 100 per cent owner of a website that sells sit-stand work products called Sit-Stand Trading Limited. He is also director of the Active Working Community Interest Company (CIC),” the authors write.

Active Working CIC is behind an international campaign, the local arm of which is called Get Australia Standing, to raise awareness about the dangers of sedentary working and prolonged sitting. The website features a range of sit-stand work products and providers.

The conflict of interest, and Bradley’s initial failure to disclose it was a “concern”, the researchers said.

Get real

University of Sydney’s Dr Josephine Chau, co-author of the media analysis, suggested that regardless of the coverage, the original guidelines are probably unrealistic anyway.

“The recommendations may be premature and hard to put into practice given that studies involving motivated participants have only managed to reduce the time spent sitting by 77 minutes in an eight-hour work day,” she said.

“Workers may use sit-stand desks and they may reduce sitting time but the evidence is not yet in to show this produces detectable health benefits, at least in the short term."

Too much standing at work has been linked to chronic back pain and musculoskeletal disorders in the lower limbs, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

 

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