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Working in an Office; "As Bad as Smoking"

11 august 2016

Did you notice this recent news item alongside all the Olympics coverage? It was sufficiently alarming to merit some research. After all, when office work is your professional concern, you want to know what’s up.

Nick Sutton, editor of the BBC news website, provides daily updates of the headlines for tomorrow’s British newspapers. On Twitter, I read that apparently The Daily Telegraph mentioned a publication on the website of the prestigious journal The Lancet (July 27), “The economic burden of physical inactivity: a global analysis of major non-communicable diseases.”

Finding Out the Facts

I had two reactions. First, there must not be any real news! It seems there’s no world news, so let’s tell everyone working in an office is just as bad for them as smoking (a.k.a. lethal, after all that’s what the cigarette packaging says). Sort of similar to those researchers from Maastricht who made the news last year with research results indicating women in offices tend to be colder than men.

My second reaction: Is the headline in The Telegraph actually accurate? Turns out it wasn’t. The paper was referencing a different article from the one linked to. That article posed the question, “How much physical activity is needed to counteract long periods of sitting and the risk of premature mortality?” That is to say, how much physical activity should you undertake in order not to die early from too much sitting?

So, what’s going on? Since 2012, The Lancet has been working on a series of articles on physical activity as a preventative for chronic diseases (non-communicable diseases, NCDs) such as cardiovascular disorders, cancer, diabetes). In July of 2016, they published a series of articles.

In their article, Ding and co-authors concluded with some interesting calculations (note, these are conservative estimates!):

  • In 2013, physical inactivity cost global healthcare systems (in 142 countries) 53.8 billion dollars (31.2 billion for the public sector, 12.9 billion for the private sector, and 9.7 billion for households).
  • People dying prematurely because of physical inactivity contribute to 13.7 billion in loss of productivity.
  • Countries with higher incomes carry 80.8% of the healthcare costs, while low and medium income countries make up a large part of the disease burden (75%).

The article referenced in the title of this piece is by Ekelund et al, a group of Swedish researchers who took a new look at 16 older studies. These tracked more than a million people over a longer period (between 2 and 18 years). During this period, over 84,000 people from the group died.  The researchers found a non-linear relationship for a combination of lots of sitting, low physical activity and increased mortality. Results were compared to a control group, as is proper. They also concluded that sufficient exercise was a good way to mitigate the chance of dying prematurely as the result of sitting for over 8 hours a day.


  • The news item in the Daily Telegraph was in fact news.
  • Sloppy references by journalists can lead to interesting, unexpected insights.
  • Too much sitting may lead to premature death.
  • It sounds insensitive, but premature deaths are a loss of valuable productivity.
  • The risk of premature death from inactivity may be mitigated by sufficient exercise.

Read more

Want to read the articles in The Lancet for yourself?

Ding, Ding et al. (2016) The economic burden of physical inactivity: a global analysis of major non-communicable diseases, The Lancet online, click here

Ekelund, Ulf et al. (2016) Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women, The Lancet, online click here