Posture at work: stand up for your brain!

The development of new technologies and the gradual tertiarisation of jobs over the past few decades have a side effect of which little attention is paid: we are spending more and more time sitting down. Indeed, physical professional activity is reduced in favor of office trades in which employees move little and stay mostly seated. A recent study shows that a person stays between 1 to 7 hours per day seated (4 hours on average) for his professional activity [1]. During this period of confinement, our sedentary lifestyle was in fact increased, further reducing our movements and our physical activities. Numerous studies have already drawn links between physical inactivity at work and health risks (obesity, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular disorders, etc.) [2], but what about our brain? Does working posture or performing physical activity during work have an impact on cognitive performance and efficiency? Studies seem to give arguments to force us to reduce our sedentary lifestyle.

Work standing, work better?

Reducing physical inactivity first of all involves working posture. Even if your professional activity involves a static position, nothing forces you to practice it on a chair! Several studies have precisely investigated the effects of standing, providing multiple proofs of its benefits on cognitive performance and well-being at work.

First of all, by using tests measuring precise cognitive functions, researchers have shown that working standing would improve inhibition capacities, which allow in particular to focus on an activity and to disregard information that does not would not be useful or relevant. Performance in mental flexibility, which makes it easier and faster to change tasks, is also improved [3]. These two cognitive functions participate in the efficient processing of information, and are therefore essential for work. This facilitating effect of the standing position would come from the fact that the control of the posture puts the body and the brain on alert, improving the cognitive control of information. This latest study did not, however, show any effect of standing on the ability to visually seek information.

Another team of researchers is finding similar results this time by assessing the differences between sitting and standing during a real professional activity [4]. It would therefore seem that not all activities benefit from the standing position, which would be preferable in environments rich in stresses and activities requiring responsiveness.

Work in motion, work better?

While it is commonly accepted in the scientific community, and in the population, that the practice of a sporting activity has a general positive impact on health, it is less known that it also improves cognitive capacities. A meta-analysis has rightly identified all the work on the links between physical activity (pedaling or running) and cognitive functioning [5], and, like the standing position, setting the body in motion (especially with pedaling) would put the brain in an active state, which would facilitate information processing and decision-making.

The authors also found that memory performance (acquisition and retrieval of information) is favored during physical practice, but the capacities for visual discrimination are reduced. Engaging in physical activity at the same time as professional activity would therefore have a positive impact on efficiency. However, the authors identified two limits: the benefits only appear after the first twenty minutes of physical activity, and they can be very variable depending on the type of physical activity and the type of professional activity. This is why it is difficult to make universal recommendations on this type of practice, which requires specific equipment and the habit of carrying it out.

Also, the benefits of physical activity are not only limited to the time of practice, but also extend over time [5]. Indeed, the improvement in cognitive performance that appears during exercise continues even when the activity is finished! This last result is important in the professional context because it implies that practicing a physical activity during a working day can improve the performance of the professional activities that follow. Taking “active” breaks at work therefore seems to be important for questions of physical health, but also of well-being and efficiency.

In conclusion, excessive sedentary lifestyle is a major issue at work and several actions are possible to avoid the associated risks. Organizations can offer raised or modular desks to promote standing. They can also offer pedalers under the desks to allow physical activity while working, or individual or collective physical activities to promote “active” breaks. Thus, organizations will take part in the preservation and promotion of the physical, but also cognitive health of their employees.

[1] M. Saidj et al., “Descriptive study of sedentary behaviours in 35,444 French working adults: cross-sectional findings from the ACTI-Cités study,” BMC Public Health, vol. 15, no. 1, p. 379, Apr. 2015.
[2] F. Dutheil, J. Ferrières, and Y. Esquirol, “Sedentary lifestyle and physical activity in a professional environment,” La Presse Médicale, vol. 46, no. 7, Part 1, pp. 703–707, Jul. 2017.
[3] K. C. Smith, C. C. Davoli, W. H. Knapp, and R. A. Abrams, “Standing enhances cognitive control and alters visual search,” Atten Percept Psychophys, vol. 81, no. 7, pp. 2320–2329, Oct. 2019.
[4] C. G. Drury, Y. L. Hsiao, C. Joseph, S. Joshi, J. Lapp, and P. R. Pennathur, “Posture and performance : sitting vs. standing for security screening,” Ergonomics, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 290–307, Mar. 2008.
[5] K. Lambourne and P. Tomporowski, “The effect of exercise-induced arousal on cognitive task performance : A meta-regression analysis,” Brain Research, vol. 1341, pp. 12–24, Jun. 2010.