Texas A&M leads International Research Team to get Workers Moving

Software-based reminder system found to be effective in decreasing sitting time and increasing the number of position changes during a workday
November 20, 2018

The traditional seated desk has been associated with increased health risk in the workplace. This is because of the “technology-induced inactivity”to which modern office workers are subjected. This phenomena was first described by Mark Benden, PhD, CPE, department head and Ergonomics Center director at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, in his 2006 book, Could You Stand to Lose, which described the impact of sedentary lifestyles and suggested ways to reduce them, including using sit-stand desks. While sit-stand desk installations have become an international trend, utilization rates are still below expectations and unlikely, at typical use levels, to produce the type of health impacts researchers like Benden had hoped to achieve.

However, transitioning back and forth between sitting and standing expends more energy than either sitting or standing alone, so it is crucial for people to routinely change positions and hopefully pick up extra steps in the process as core strength increases and ambulation occurs more frequently. Interventions targeted to increase position changes throughout the day can be important for overweight or obese individuals who will expend more energy through these transitions.

Fast forward 12 years, and a research team led by Benden and Parag Sharma, DrPH, a recent doctoral graduate of the School of Public Health, tested a new computer-based intervention aimed at increasing the number of position changes in a group of adults. Funded by OERC.org and other industry partners, the study was published in the journal Human Factors and used software that reminded users to change the position of their sit-stand desks and monitored their computer use time and desk position.

“The research team spent three years securing funding, approval for seven office sites throughout Australia and then installing software and hardware on 600 workers’ desks at three randomly selected locations from those seven sites,” Benden said. All workers at each site had the electric sit-stand desks for at least one year before the start of this study.

Nearly 400 people were involved in the three-month baseline study and 194 office workers from that group were part of the nine-month intervention with software prompts. During the first three months of the study, researchers collected baseline data using the software to measure active computer use time and desk position changes. After this baseline period, the researchers moved to the intervention stage where workers received reminders to change desk positions, with a default setting of 30 minutes of sitting and 20 minutes of standing. Workers had the option to change their desk position, postpone the change or ignore the reminder entirely. They could control the timing of the reminders, which allowed them to personalize their daily sit-stand routine and set goals. To see their progress, they could see their weekly and monthly desk usage statistics at any point via the software. More than a dozen researchers and industry partners collaborated on this research, including representatives from Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

The researchers analyzed data on daily total active computer use, computer use while standing, computer use while sitting and total number of desk position changes. They found that standing and sitting computer use and position changes all showed significant changes from the baseline period to the intervention, with increased standing computer use time, decreased sitting computer use time and increased desk position changes. With the intervention, desk movement was doubled on average (one desk position change per work day to two desk position changes per work day). Workers who had five hours or more of active computer use per day on average showed the largest increase in desk position changes, and the number of workers who never changed desk positions dropped from 33 at baseline to only seven after the nine-month intervention.

Because this study measured active computer use time, which considers only the time a worker is at his or her desk instead of at meetings or lunch, it more effectively measured the effects of the intervention.

“This one-year research study effectively used technology for the first time, linking the electric desk and computer instead of wearables to create behavior change by allowing workers to track and set personalized desk usage goals and increase their movement throughout the workday while remaining at their workstation,” Sharma said. “Future studies should connect health behaviors with health impacts and look at improved ways to motivate workers and evaluate work output changes during the intervention.”

These findings indicate that a software-based reminder system could be effective at decreasing sitting time and increasing the number of position changes during a workday, especially for those people who have the highest rate of computer use.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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