I just got back from a conference on ‘behavioural nutrition and physical activity’, and one very active new strand of research into behaviour change and physical activity is sedentary behaviour, which was represented by stacks of research at this conference. Sedentary behaviour was until recently seen as the absence of physical activity, but it has become a behavioural focus in its own right. How to measure, how to gauge its health effects, and how to change sedentary behaviour seems to me even more difficult than the corresponding concepts in physical activity (and they’re hard enough!)
I didn’t go to many of the talks on sedentary behaviour as my research focus is mostly on physical activity, but the sedentary behaviour on display at the conference itself held me enthralled and perplexed. The conference, having these health behaviours as its core topics, certainly walked the talk. The lunches provided were very healthy, with plenty of salads, yoghurt and nutritious sandwiches. The snacks served up at coffee breaks were also nutritious, with fresh fruit always available (though to me, wholemeal scones with a sliver of jam and no cream is just plain taking the FUN out of scones…)
Walking the talk was also evident in the active behaviour encouraged wherever possible during the conference. Yoga and walks were offered by the organisers at some ungodly hour before the conference started (I eschewed these, as my accommodation was 2 miles away and gave me a great chance to see some of Edinburgh’s beauty en route).
Motivational signs were posted near the staircases, telling you how many Munros you’d climb in a year if you took the stairs. Hordes of people took to the stairs between sessions, and goodness knows how many flights of stairs were climbed by people walking the 4 flights from the main auditorium to the basement where poster sessions took place. At break times the escalators were ignored by most people in favour of the stairs (much to the consternation of the conference centre staff before they realised that all these people annoyingly cluttering up the stairwells were not just being awkward!) Some of the people presenting at different talks name-checked other researchers who had contributed to the work being discussed and then, much to our amusement, publicly shamed them for being spotted taking the escalators!
Where this became really interesting though was in discouragement of sedentary behaviour. The smaller seminar rooms were provided with ample room at the back for people to stand up during the talks. There were also high tables for people to lean against or take notes on. At the lunch sessions there was no seating, with high tables provided instead for people to gather round and eat their lunches (this was actually extremely comfortable). In the auditoriums there were banks of seats cordoned off for standing, with ‘standing only’ stickers attached to the seats.
People-watching in this context became a fascinating past-time! Here were 1200 conference attendees highly educated in the health risks of sedentary behaviour and highly motivated to not be sedentary. There was also social pressure to be less sedentary in the form of verbal encouragement to sit as little as possible by speakers, and also more subtly in the form of perceived social norms. When people came into the smaller seminar rooms you watched them as they agonised over whether to sit or stand. First their eyes went to the chairs. Then their eyes flicked to the people standing at the back. Indecision was written across their faces. Do the ‘right’ thing and stand, or do the comfortable thing and sit? More often than not, people chose the latter. These highly-educated, highly-motivated people who you would have thought would choose the ‘right’ option!
A confession: I actually hate standing up for protracted periods of time. When I stood during the seminars (which I usually did) by the end of the week I ended up alternating standing with sitting on the floor. I don’t find sitting for long periods of time comfortable either, but what I like to do is to alternate sitting with some form of movement, not standing. It’s uncomfortable! It makes your back ache and your legs tired, whereas walking or gentle movement makes for a much more comfortable experience. I felt envious of the comfortable sitters by the end of the week…
I’m not the only one, apparently! On Twitter there were lots of people tweeting about their bums being adorned with ‘standing only’ stickers as they had sat down in the standing areas:
This happened to me, too. In the larger auditoriums our social conditioning kicked in. It’s an environment just like a cinema, and anyone standing in the cinema would be stared at and whispered about, possibly even censured by staff. At the start of the week there were plenty of people standing in the auditoriums, by the end of the week almost nobody did. You felt psychologically and socially uncomfortable standing in this environment, even whilst you felt smug about doing the ‘right’ thing. By the end of the week the people standing were usually lurking on the stairs at either side of the auditorium, trying to look inconspicuous…
So if even this population seems to prefer to sit rather than stand in most contexts even with encouragement and standing areas provided, what hope is there for the less-educated, poorly motivated ‘normal’ person in a normal office and home? It’s an interesting conundrum and shows just how challenging changing sedentary behaviour is, I think.
But perhaps not all hope is lost, however. One really nice aspect of this conference was the enthusiasm with which people took to giving standing ovations at the drop of a hat. Not only was this lovely for the speaker (how gratifying must it be to receive a standing ovation?!), but it also gave the audience a great opportunity to stand up, stretch and engage in a tiny bit of movement. And people who remained seated during the standing ovations were definitely looked at disapprovingly, often resulting in them leaping to their feet to join in. These micro-interactions within the audience were very interesting to watch. Definitely scope for an observational study of sorts here, it’d be fascinating to compare this conference with one on an unrelated topic too. There has been a small amount of research on this , but there’s certainly room for more!
Photo Flickr CC2.0 by Mike