The Bartlett


Taking a stand

A study by Professor Alexi Marmot and colleagues reveals ways to combat unhealthy trends in office design and culture that keep people in their seats.

A person sits at a desk and works on a computer

Since we spend about 90% of our lives inside buildings, how we spend that time may have an impact on our health and wellbeing. “Most of our indoor life – particularly our working life – is spent being sedentary and it has now emerged that the extent of sitting in and of itself is an additional risk factor to health” says Alexi Marmot, Professor of Facility and Environment Management and Director of the Global Centre for Learning Environments in The Bartlett Real Estate Institute.

The consequences of these low levels of physical activity can account for up to 3% of total healthcare costs and 10% of wider societal costs in high-income countries. Together with colleagues at The Bartlett and UCL, Marmot set up the Active Buildings Study to examine whether the spatial layout of office buildings influences office workers' step count and sitting time, and whether it could be a tool for behaviour change. Funded by The National Institute for Health Research, the study was a collaboration between The Bartlett School of Architecture and the Health Behaviour Unit within UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.

The team included Dr Marcella Ucci, health psychologists Jane Wardle and Abi Fisher, and early-career researchers. “There is considerable debate about the extent to which the built environment affects and encourages behaviours beneficial to health,” says Marmot. The issue is also one of culture, so working with health psychologists provided a rounded approach to examining the problem.

The study collected data from 10 UK office buildings and asked workers there to complete a ‘movement at work’ survey, including questions on physical activity behaviour and the factors that create barriers to or opportunities for, movement. Participants also wore accelerometers and tracking devices to monitor their 24-hour physical activity over several days. 

Key findings confirmed that office-based workers have low levels of physical activity, and also revealed that staff who perceived that management discouraged unscheduled breaks had significantly lower step counts than other colleagues. “Health behaviour specialists often work on campaigns to encourage people to move more in the office. Most campaigns work for a short while, and then people revert to ingrained behaviours,” Marmot explains. “The inertia of traditional practices limits change, so you have to work hard to find and communicate evidence that we should be doing things differently.”

Marmot notes that some research reveals that well-designed sit-stand desks can slightly reduce sedentary behaviours. With regards to the design of buildings she says: “There is reasonable evidence that the position and visibility of staircases matter.” While adequate fire escapes are mandatory, they tend to be tucked away discreetly. More obvious staircases in an office design can celebrate vertical movement and encourage employees to use the stairs rather than the lift.