Research shows sysadmins may outlive IT execs

Stressing out over the health risks of excessive sitting only makes it worse.
Credit: Tim Regan

There may be more hope for the health of techies who do the dirty and difficult work of IT, who may end up outliving colleagues condemned by seniority or specialty to a less physically strenuous lifestyle.

Pulling cable, swapping circuit boards, assembling new systems – even carrying monitors, answering stupid questions and dealing with the legendary stresses of direct support of and contact with users – may provide enough regular physical activity to stave off the increasingly infamous risk of sitting and staring at a monitor all day.

That activity falls easily within the bounds of activity described by University of Utah researchers who studied the activity levels of 3,243 people to see if lower activity levels brought any benefit at all to the 80 percent of Americans who don't get the recommended 2.5 hours per week of moderate exercise per week.

They found that strolling and other light activities, repeated many times during the week, could add up to two thirds of the activity level recommended for a whole week – essentially breaking down the weekly 2.5-hour exercise requirement into dozens of little two-minute walks taken as good-circulation breaks during the workday, according to the paper, which was published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology April 30.

"Exercise is great, but the reality is that the practical amount of vigorous exercise that can be achieved is limited," according to a published statement from senior author Tom Green, interim head of the Population Health Sciences department at the university and director of the Study Design and Biostatistics Center in the university's Center for Clinical and Translational Science. "Our study suggests that even small changes can have a big impact."

More than 60 percent of Americans spend at least part of their work days in front of a computer screen and most spend 70 percent of each day sitting and only 30 percent in "light" but non-exercise-like activity, according to a 2010 Mayo Clinic study.

During the past few years, sitting in particular became the culprit, following revelations in studies like this one published by the journal Diabetologia in 2012 estimating that people with desk jobs were at twice the risk of heart disease as those who didn't sit all day, and were twice as likely to have diabetes or suffer more immediate cardiac events like a stroke or heart attack.

Studies like those sparked an aversion to sitting strong enough to fund a fad for desks and office products designed to make people uncomfortable or embarrassed enough to go on living.

They did not raise any hope of counteracting the effect of all that sitting. In January of this year a meta-analysis of 47 other studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine confirmed that one hour of exercise per day wasn't enough to offset the weight of sitting down the other 23.

Simply standing up for two minutes per hour doesn't do any good, according to Srinivasan Beddhu, professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah and lead author of the moderate-activity study.

The benefit only comes from the cumulative effect of a large number of short periods of light activity, which add up to a moderate amount of light activity that should reduce the risk of death by 33 percent compared to just sitting there.

It's probably a good idea to pick the direction you walk carefully, however. A 2013 study that found 73 percent of IT people in the U.K. considered leaving their jobs due to stress from having bosses on one side and end users on the other -- suggesting that Away might be the best direction.

The march toward exascale computers
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