Lifestyle and exercise

Middle-aged office workers 'sit down more' than OAPs

"Middle-aged male office workers 'more sedentary than over-75-year-olds'," The Daily Telegraph reports.

A survey in Scotland suggests previous studies may have underestimated sedentary behaviour in middle-age by not asking about time at work, which for many people increasingly involves sitting at a desk.

Researchers surveyed more than 14,000 people about their time spent doing activities – including work – sitting down. They found that on weekdays, people who worked reported a longer amount of time sitting down compared to those aged 75 and above.

At the weekends, this was reversed, possibly suggesting that some office workers were trying to compensate for their sedentary working week.

Among all men – workers and non-workers – most age groups reported being inactive for longer than pensioners. The opposite was true for women: overall, women were found to be more active than pensioners.

The authors suggest the sedentary lifestyle created by the work environment is a public health risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. This suggestion is backed by a large body of research discussed in our article "Why we should sit less".

Getting active at work might be easier than you think: you could cycle or walk for part or all of your journey, walk over to someone's desk rather than emailing or phoning, use your lunch break to exercise and use the stairs instead of getting the lift. Read more advice about How to boost your health at work.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre in Edinburgh. One researcher was funded by a PhD college award from the University of Edinburgh, while the other authors all held positions at the University of Edinburgh.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sports Sciences.

The UK media reporting of the story is broadly accurate, highlighting the main finding that middle-aged workers were more sedentary than pensioners on weekdays.

But The Sun failed to mention that the trend was reversed at the weekends and those in the middle-aged categories were in fact the most active at these times.

Also, the Telegraph reports that "Middle-aged male office workers spend more time sitting down than pensioners", which implies that it is a gender specific problem. While the difference was more pronounced in men, female workers also spent a longer average time being sedentary compared with those 75 and above.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional survey of Scottish adults looking at sedentary behaviour including time spent sat down at work and how this varies across age groups and gender.

This kind of study is good in that it can recruit a large number of people, and thus give a fair representation of the country as a whole.

However, as they are only surveyed once with no follow-up, it is a snapshot picture and we cannot say if these trends have been consistent over time.

What did the research involve?

Adults (those aged 16 and over) in Scotland were asked to participate in the Scottish Health Questionnaire in 2012, 2013 or 2014 to find out the amount of sedentary time in each age category and in men and women. The Scottish Health Survey is an ongoing project designed to provide a detailed picture of the health of the Scottish public.

In total, 14,367 participants were asked to report on their time spent in sedentary activities from three areas:

  • time spent sitting at work on a standard day
  • leisure time spent sitting watching the TV or other screen devices on a typical weekday and weekend day
  • time spent in other leisure sedentary activities such as eating a meal, listening to music or reading, on a typical weekday and weekend day

They assumed that a typical working day was on a weekday.

The participants were split into 10-year age bands starting from the age of 16 and split by gender for analysis.

What were the basic results?

On weekdays:

  • For all adults in work, total reported sedentary time was higher for each age category than for those 75 and over.
  • For men in work, the biggest difference was between those aged 55 to 64, who were on average sedentary for 84 minutes longer than those aged 75 and above per day; 7.9 (95% confidence interval [CI] 7.6 to 8.2) versus 6.5 (95% CI 5.1 to 7.8) hours per day.
  • For all men, the youngest age group (ages 16 to 24) reported less sedentary time than the oldest age group (75 and over); 6.6 (95% (CI) 6.3 to 6.9) hours per day versus 7.4 (95% CI 7.2 to 7.6) hours per day.
  • For all men, the age group between 45 and 54 reported slightly more (24 minutes more) sedentary time than the oldest age group; 7.8 (95%CI 7.6 to 8.0) versus 7.4 (95% CI 7.2 to 7.6) hours per day.
  • For all women, the oldest age group (75 and above) reported more sedentary time than those aged between 16 and 75 (7.4 (95% CI 7.2 to 7.6) versus 6.6 to 6.9 (95% CI 6.4 to 7.1) hours per day).
  • For men not in work, most age groups reported less sedentary time than those aged 75 and above. The exception was those aged 45 to 54 who reported more sedentary time than the 75+ age group; 7.7 (95% CI 7.2 to 8.2) versus 7.4 (95% CI 7.2 to 7.7) hours per day.
  • For women not in work, all age groups reported less sedentary time than those aged 75 and above, with the lowest being in the 25-34 age group.

At the weekend:

  • Those aged 25 to 54 reported the lowest amount of sedentary time (5.2 to 5.7 (95% CI 5.0 to 6.0) hours per day, compared to those over 75 who reported sedentary time at the weekend as between 7.3 and 7.4 (95% CI 7.1 to 7.7) hours per day.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The authors conclude that their "results challenge the conventional understanding that older adults in Scotland report the highest levels of sedentary time, as the majority of middle-aged adults reported similar levels to older adults. In light of these results, we suggest changing the way national prevalence estimates are calculated for Scotland and England, so that they include sedentary time at work."

They further add that "interventions to reduce sedentary time should consider differences in the relative contributions of ST [sedentary time] behaviours by age and work-status."


The results of this large Scottish survey indicate that for adults in work, time spent being inactive during weekdays is greater in all age groups compared with people aged 75 and above. This is reversed at the weekend.

This indicates that work has a huge impact on activity levels. The authors argue that long periods spent sitting at work have public health implications, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

However, there are a number of limitations to the study:

  • The responses were self-reported, so might be subject to bias if people inaccurately estimate the amount of time they are inactive. However, this is not likely to change a great deal between age groups. Recall bias could well lead to underestimation of the amount of sedentary time so the problem could actually be worse than described.
  • Other sedentary activities that are not specifically mentioned in the survey might be overlooked and under-reported. For example, people in younger age groups may spend more time sitting down driving but as this was not specifically asked they might not report it.
  • The survey only had Scottish respondents and therefore may be less relevant for a UK-wide population in which activity in different age groups might differ.
  • In younger age groups, more women than men reported not working, which might have affected overall results.

While it can be challenging to fit a regular exercise regime into a 9-5 lifestyle, it is possible, especially if you make an extra effort to get active during the weekend.

Read more advice about how to increase your activity levels.

NHS Attribution