Apparently, ‘Sitting for hours on end, every day, is bad for your health. Sitting at work is bad for you. Sitting after work is bad for you. Sitting is the new smoking, except that the furniture lobby probably isn’t as powerful as the tobacco one’ link.
Now while I don’t for one moment decry the volumes of research that are supporting this recent phenomenon, my question is why now? Why has prolonged sitting become what Gilson, Straker and Parry recently described as ‘a contemporary and highly topical area of study within public health research’?
It’s not like people haven’t been sitting down for long periods of time to do their work. One doesn’t have to look far back in human history to find that many menial jobs performed by low-paid workers (often women and children) were conducted sitting down. Seamstresses and textile workers have worked at cramped, poorly designed tables for centuries, often in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions and this continues today in some of the countries where labour is cheap and replaceable.
And what about secretaries and machine operators, bus drivers and call-centre workers? Haven’t they been victims to the same conditions that are now exercising the brains of our health promotion advisors? And then, of course, we could ask about the people who are wheelchair users. Beyond the research concerned with pressure area care, why wasn’t there the same interest in the health risks associated with their prolonged sitting?
‘You’ve no doubt heard the news by now: A car-commuting, desk-bound, TV-watching lifestyle can be harmful to your health. All the time we spend parked behind a steering wheel, slumped over a keyboard, or kicked back in front of the tube is linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even depression—to the point where experts have labeled this modern-day health epidemic the “sitting disease.”‘ (Runner’s World)
As a discourse analyst I’m always interested in new knowledge – particularly the kinds of common-sense knowledge that people take for granted. Who could argue, for example, with statistics that show that people spend on average nine hours a day sitting, that they tend to sit more when they’ve engaged in vigorous exercise, or that sitting can cause everything from back pain to impotence? No-one, of course, because that’s the point. It only works as a powerful message if it’s hard to dispute.
Now if, along the way, a few exaggerated claims are made, or some broader, less palatable, social issues get bypassed for the greater good of the population’s health, then should anyone complain? Well, maybe.
There is a distinctly white, European, elitist feel to some of the hyperbole surrounding sitting; a zeal for giving advice that you rarely see emanating from more marginal communities, where the focus is on the ‘substantial’ questions at the more ‘physiological’ end of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs. There is the same zeal evident in a lot of the health promotion literature where a sense of ‘culpability in the face of known risk’ prevails (Galvin, 2002).
Sadly, most of the physiotherapy research to date has reflected this fervour for judgement. Although couched in the language of objectivity and value-neutrality it does, nonetheless, carry a powerful political message about the profession’s priorities and interests. Although seemingly directed at working age adults figurativeley ‘chained’ to their desks, much of the research says as much about the populations of people physiotherapy is, and is not, particularly interested in.
If physiotherapists are really interested in the problems of prolonged sitting and its dire effects are to be believed, then surely the profession should adopt a position towards social justice that sees it working to transform the working conditions of millions of poor, non-white, non-male, non-European, non-abled-bodied people who do not have the luxury of seat warmers, sit/stand desks, and air conditioned gymnasia.
Gilson, N., Straker, L. & Parry, S. (2012). Occupational sitting: practitioner perceptions of health risks, intervention strategies and influences. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 23: 208-12.
Galvin, R. (2002). Disturbing Notions of Chronic Illness and Individual Responsibility: Towards a Genealogy of Morals.” Health (6)2: 107-137.