Suggested link between sedentary jobs and bowel cancer

Most full-time employees spend the majority of their waking hours at work. Many will find themselves driving to work, sitting at an office desk, and driving home again, particularly with advances in technology that have made some forms of work more sedentary than ever. Research suggests that sedentary behaviour could possibly increase the risk of chronic diseases.

An article published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in March 2011 outlines research undertaken at the University of Western Australia, Perth, which set out to investigate whether sedentary behaviour is associated with specific types of colorectal (large bowel) cancer. The study compared 918 patients with confirmed colorectal cancer with a control group of 1,021 people not suffering from the disease. Data was collected on their lifetime job history, lifestyle, diet, level of recreational physical activity and use of medication.

The researchers found that, compared with those who did not spend any time in sedentary work, workers in sedentary jobs for 10 years or more are doubling their risk of developing cancer in the lower area of the bowel (distal colon). They were also shown to be 44% more likely to develop rectal cancer. Worryingly, the study suggests that exercise done outside work hours does not appear to counteract the harm done by long periods of sedentary behaviour.

According to NHS Choices, it is possible that prolonged sitting itself is not having the effect upon bowel cancer risk, but that it is a marker for another possible risk factor that is actually behind the association, for example, obesity, poor diet or low levels of vitamin D. Growing numbers of people work in jobs that involve prolonged periods of sitting. The health effects of this type of work, and strategies to modify any adverse effects, are important areas for further research.

About 30,000 people a year are diagnosed with bowel cancer in England and Wales, a disease which has a high mortality rate, perhaps because many ignore the early warning signs. Despite the fact that someone is diagnosed with bowel cancer every 15 minutes in the UK, public awareness of the disease and its symptoms is poor, and many people delay visiting their GP when they have concerns. Some people may be more susceptible to bowel cancer than others. For example, the risk of contracting bowel cancer rises from the age of about 50, and risk factors may include a diet high in red/processed meats, an inactive lifestyle, high alcohol consumption and smoking, and being overweight.

It is in an employer’s interests to help employees remain physically and mentally healthy: healthy employees will be happier and more productive and therefore more able to make a positive contribution to an organisation’s objectives. If you would like advice on how to implement a health and wellbeing policy in your organisation, or promote issues such as maintaining a healthy diet, alcohol awareness and quit smoking campaigns, call the Health for Work Adviceline (0800 0 77 88 44) to get expert advice from occupational health professionals.

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