Stand and deliver

Walk the talk …. mobile meetings are an active option to get moving at work.
Walk the talk …. mobile meetings are an active option to get moving at work.

Now that we've kicked cigarettes out of the workplace, the next challenge is tackling another major lifestyle threat to our health - the physical inertia that's become such a big part of the working day. While we can control couch time at home, the office is a different story - how can we find ways of working that allow us to sit less and still do the job?

Rachel Mulqueeney's new routine in her office at Cancer Council Victoria points the way. Thanks to a height-adjustable desk, she now stands up for part of her working day, and when she schedules meetings, they're frequently in rooms equipped with more of these desks, which allow people to stand and take notes instead of sitting down. If no standing meeting room is available, she'll often organise a walking meeting in a nearby park instead.

''As long as the group is small and the weather is fine, walking meetings work really well - although it helps to have a scribe who is good at walking and writing at the same time,'' says Mulqueeney, who is part of the organisation's pilot program to put more physical activity into the working day.

''It can be a little tricky to get the height of the desks right when there's a big difference in the height of people at the meeting. But most people like the option of standing because they've been sitting for most of the day.''

Mulqueeney is part of a movement going beyond the usual ''take the stairs instead of the lift'' tips. It's targeting the top, urging employers to make changes that let sedentary workers be more physically active.

In its Healthy Workplace Guide, for instance, Cancer Council NSW suggests employers offer flexible work hours to help employees fit physical activity into their day; support physical activity breaks, such as stretching or short walks; and provide secure bike storage for people who want to cycle to work.

Flexible dress codes make sense, too. Biking to work with a business suit stuffed in a pack isn't practical, so it helps if workers can wear smart casual on days where suits aren't strictly necessary, Chris Tzar, of Exercise is Medicine Australia, says. The organisation has produced a new guide called Physical Activity in the Workplace, with a range of ideas employers can use to get staff moving more.

Based on evidence that breaking up long periods of sitting may help cut the risk of heart disease and diabetes, the guide recommends employees stand up for two minutes every 30 minutes if they can - or for two to four minutes every hour.

These breaks can be work-related, Tzar says: discuss something with a colleague, or make a phone call (introducing extra-long phone cords can make this easier). ''We've had some people in human resources say, 'We can't have people standing up all the time because it interrupts productivity.' That's when I say, 'Your employees are entitled to a smoking break, but you're saying they can't get up and do something healthy.' The irony is, they have a policy that actually promotes unhealthy behaviour.''

More likely to affect productivity is ''presenteeism'' - the loss of productivity from people who turn up for work but don't function well because of illness or injury.

''We talk a lot about absenteeism, but more work performance is lost from presenteeism - it's estimated to cost $26 billion a year in lost productivity. Three of the four major causes of presenteeism are depression, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Physical activity can help treat all three,'' Tzar says.

To check out Physical Activity in the Workplace, see

Paula Goodyer blogs at

This story Stand and deliver first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.