Health & Wellness Society & Culture

Office location linked to body size, study finds

Is your office located on the opposite end of the building from the copier? That might be a good thing for your waistline.

A new study from the University of Georgia has found that workers whose desks are located farther from common office spaces were less sedentary and had, on average, lower body fat percentages.

Jennifer Gay in an exercise laboratory at UGA. (Photo by Chad Osborn/UGA)

Office space design and its impact on our physical health is a relatively new area of study, said lead author Jennifer Gay, an associate professor of health promotion and behavior at UGA’s College of Public Health.

“We don’t know much about how building layouts influence physical activity at work,” said Gay. “I wanted to better understand how our work environments influence activity behavior, beyond whether a worksite has policies that support walking breaks or have an on-site gym.”

Most research on physical activity and the workplace has focused on worksite wellness programs or incentivizing healthy behaviors, but evidence is growing that simply taking breaks from long periods of sitting helps with managing blood sugar.

Walking at work improves health

“On average, office workers spend six hours or more of their day sitting,” said Gay. “So, identifying ways to increase walking at work could lead to improved health.”

Gay and her co-author, David Buchner from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, measured the distances between offices and common amenities like bathrooms, break rooms and shared printers or copiers for 108 office employees working across 10 sites, all with different layouts.

They also measured the employees’ body fat percentage, waist circumference, the number of times the employee got up and moved around the office and for how long.

The findings certainly suggest that where employee offices are may influence their behavior.” — Jennifer Gay

As the researchers hypothesized, working farther from the building entrance was linked to lower body fat percentage, and employees working farther from the copier tended to have smaller waist circumferences. In addition, workers with offices located farther from common amenities tended to move more throughout the day.

But Gay cautioned that there were limitations to their findings. For one, they didn’t measure eating habits, which can offset onsite movement, and the study only looked at a subsample of office spaces.

“The sample size is too small to assume that the results would be true across all offices, but the findings certainly suggest that where employee offices are may influence their behavior,” said Gay.

Changing office design

The results point to a few takeaways for building designers and employers, namely that designing office spaces that encourage employees to move around more frequently at work will benefit the overall health of workers.

But what about the large proportion of employees who are still working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic – and may continue to work from home even after the pandemic is over?

Gay said that for those home-based workers who have some flexibility in where and how they set up their work space, setting up farther from the bathroom or kitchen can help increase physical activity and break up long periods of sitting, which is better for our health.

The study, “Associations between Office Location and Adiposity in Office Workers,” was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in August.