Media reports failed to mention limits to evidence in new guidelines about sitting and moving at work, and missed commercial interests that were initially not disclosed. Attribute:Kennyrhoads/Wikimedia Commons
How the media oversold standing desks as a fix for inactivity at work
World-first guidelines that recommended office workers stand for some part of their day were based on limited evidence and did not initially disclose a commercial interest
Subsequent media reporting did not highlight the weakness of the evidence and one-third of articles incorrectly warned that too much sitting cancels out the benefits of exercise
Sitting is so culturally ingrained at work, at the wheel, in front of the TV and at the movies, it takes a great effort to imagine doing these things standing up, let alone peddling as you work at a “bike desk”.
Stand up at your desk for two hours a day, new guidelines say
But what many media reports did not mention was the guidelines were based on limited evidence. They were also co-authored by someone with commercial links to sit-stand desks (desks you raise and lower to work at standing or sitting), a link not declared when the guidelines were first published in a journal.
Media reports also overplayed the dangers of sitting at work, incorrectly saying it wiped out the benefits of exercise.
Our new study reveals the nature of this media coverage and its role in overselling sit-stand desks as a solution to inactivity at work.
These caveats are important because the authors acknowledge the evidence quality is weak and that guidelines are likely to change.
The news media also seemed to be unaware of amendments to the journal article, including to expand the disclosure of competing interests to clarify one author, Gavin Bradley, has a connection to the business of selling sit-stand desks.
The revised version notes Gavin Bradley is 100% 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).
According to the Australian arm, Get Australia Standing, these campaigns aim to raise awareness and educate the community about:
… the dangers of sedentary working and prolonged sitting time.
The website also features a range of sit-stand work products and providers.
We are not suggesting Gavin Bradley skewed the sit-stand desk evidence in the guidelines. But the initial failure to disclose his interests is a concern.
No, sitting doesn’t cancel out exercise
In our study, we also found more than one-third of articles incorrectly warned that too much sitting cancels out the benefits of exercise.
This is contrary to recent research showing high levels of moderate intensity physical activity (about 60–75 min a day) seem to eliminate the increased risk of early death associated with high levels of sitting time (eight hours a day or more).
This rigorous study, analysing data from one million adults, also found this high activity level reduces, but does not remove, the increased risk linked to high levels of TV-viewing.
Yet, this study does not appear among the research resources on the Get Australia Standing campaign website, which appears to promote the message that it doesn’t matter if you are physically active, if you sit a lot you are doing yourself harm.
How realistic are the recommendations anyway?
Regardless of the media reporting of the guidelines, we need to ask ourselves how realistic the guidelines are.
These make general recommendations to sit less and break up periods of uninterrupted sitting because the experts conclude the evidence does not point to a specific amount of sitting time at which harm begins.
Given the evolving research field and the vested interests, we need to pay attention to sitting time, standing, and physical activity levels as well as the role of industry players and their contribution to advice on health.
Catriona Bonfiglioli has received funding from the Australian Research Council (ARCDP 1096251), the UTS Early Career Research Grant program (2010 2009001198), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (2009), the Public Health Education and Research Program (2000: PHERP 052), The Reuter Foundation (1997), and the University of Sydney (1999 UPA). Catriona has been a co-investigator on projects funded by The National Health and Medical Research Council Project (2010: 632840) and UTS. Catriona is a member of the Public Health Association of Australia's NSW branch committee.
Josephine Chau was supported by Postdoctoral Fellowship (#100567) from the National Heart Foundation of Australia (2015-2017); she has directly received consulting funds from the World Health Organization, and Bill Bellew Consulting Associates; and travel reimbursement from Marsh Pty Ltd.
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