Man on the Move

Distinguished Professor Sam Headley Explores Sedentary Behavior

Distinguished Professor Sam Headley Explores Sedentary Behavior

Everybody is talking about the ills of sedentary behavior. Sitting is the new smoking, the latest warning goes, but Sam Headley, PhD, professor of exercise science and sport studies, and the 2016-2017 Distinguished Springfield Professor of Humanics (DSPH), decided to spend his year as DSPH actually doing something about what other people are just talking about.

Headley, a native of Barbados, has been at Springfield College for 25 years. He worked his way up through the ranks, starting as an assistant professor and has spent his career working in physiology and exercise science. He tells Triangle how the idea of focusing on sedentary behavior came to him:

“My primary area of research is clinical exercise physiology. As I was reviewing some material in relation to my research in chronic kidney disease, I was discovering quite a lot of information in the literature about sedentary behavior and I found it compelling. Soon afterwards, I was given the honor of serving as DSPH. I conferred with my school dean, Dr. Tracey Matthews, G’95, DPE’97, who immediately expressed her enthusiastic support for the project, which involved the assessment of sedentary behavior at the College. My goal was to put in place initiatives to help make our campus less sedentary.”

He made his DSPH presentation titled “Assessment of Sedentary Behavior at Springfield College,” at the annual DSPH Lecture in April. He noted in the presentation that the study of sedentary behavior is far from new, pointing out that: “The consequences of prolonged sitting were noted back in the 17th century by an occupational physician named Ramazzini who observed poor health outcomes in people with sedentary jobs!”

Consequences of Sedentary Behavior

Headley cited work by researchers in sedentary pathophysiology showing that sedentary behavior has a distinct negative effect on human physiology. Researchers have found evidence that large amounts of sedentary time affect vascular health and metabolism negatively, and the consequences of sedentary behavior are: increased prevalence of obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, increased risk of colon cancer in men and women, risk of endometrial cancer, and increased mortality.

Headley also cited research involving 595,086 individuals reporting a two percent increase in all-causes of mortality risk with each additional hour of daily sitting. These researchers also found that for each additional hour beyond seven hours of daily sitting, there was a five percent increase in all-cause mortality risk.

Translation: sitting long periods of time isn’t a great choice if you want to stay healthy and live longer.

people walking

Headley’s research process started at the beginning of the 2016 academic year at the All College Meeting, where the President traditionally kicks off the academic year, and covers initiatives and plans for the coming months. “Dean Matthews was able to ask President Cooper’s permission to give me a few minutes to outline my ideas for this research program. I stood up in front of the whole assembled College and announced my plan. That was the start of it. I explained that I wanted to evaluate the current status of sedentary behavior on campus among employees with an online survey. And then, with those employees who wanted to participate further, I would use a data-gathering device called the ActivPal, a state-of-the-art tool for measuring and monitoring behavior, to determine how long they spent being sedentary.”

For his research, Headley decided to focus on College employees, not students. “I had the year to do this, and the employee group was more manageable and more appropriate for that timeframe,” he said.

Assessment Phase

“We started with subjective research, the Occupational Sitting and Physical Activity Questionnaire (OSPAQ), an online survey that posed a series of questions to employees about their perceived level of activity during the day,” Headley explains. “It asked them to give us the percentage of time during the day they thought they were sedentary, sitting vs. standing vs. walking. The survey was sent to all 697 full-time employees. Out of that number, 343 (49 percent) provided complete data, which I thought was a very strong response.”

Professor Headley’s Tips for Avoiding Sedentary Behavior

Try to engage in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity three to five days per week.

Accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity a week.

Cut down on sitting time.

Take frequent breaks from sitting.

Increase the amount of light intensity physical activity in your day.

On the glass half full side, Headley tells Triangle that Springfield College is actually doing better than a peer group at another institution of higher learning. A similar study using the OSPAQ and conducted in 2014 at the University of Minnesota reported that excluding facilities personnel, the other employees at the university spent about 75 percent of their workday seated. Overall, Springfield College, based on this same subjective OSPAQ assessment, reported a significantly better rate of 66 percent of the time being sedentary.
Go Pride.

The assessment phase continued with objective research, taking place from fall 2016 into January 2017. Respondents to the OSPAQ who were interested in continuing to participate in the research came to the exercise science lab to have measurements taken, and to be outfitted with the ActivPal. The ActivPal, a research-grade device, is more sophisticated than consumer devices like the FitBit, which are excellent for getting people to move and exercise, but, from a research perspective, are not regarded as the best tools for the assessment of sedentary behavior. After the subjects had worn the ActivPal for seven days to collect data about their levels of activity, they reported back to the lab and went over their data with the “Humanics Team” to see how they did.

The Humanics team, made up of members of the faculty, staff, and student bodies and assembled by Headley, analyzed the personal data of the interested employees. The research team included Associate Professor Jasmin Hutchinson, who was responsible for coordinating the intervention phase of the study, and students Sarah Wooley, Kristen Dempsey, Kelvin Phan, Patricia Rousseau, Anna Platz, Brendan O’Neil, Bassey Akpan, and Greg Spicer. 

Headley also is grateful for the support he received from then-Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jean A. Wyld, and Dean Matthews. “The support and many hours of hard work put in by these people was amazing, I could not have accomplished all of this research without them, and I am very grateful for their time and effort,” Headley tells Triangle.

The ActivPal collected an impressive amount of data about employees’ workday behavior including: time sitting during the workday; percentage of workday sitting; longest sedentary bout breaks; time spent standing per day at work; and steps taken during the workday.

The research also measured cardiovascular data such as blood pressure and pulse rate. Interestingly, the data showed that the faculty segment of the test group had better numbers for time spent sitting (53.3 percent of the time) vs. administrators (60.8 percent) and staff (56.6 percent). 

Intervention Phase

Intervention Phase 1 followed the assessment phase, during the spring semester. Participants met one-on-one or in small groups with a member of the Humanics Team. They reviewed their ActivPal data, identified their behavioral patterns during the workday, and received feedback and counseling. Participants also brainstormed ways they could feasibly stand up more, sit less, and generally move more throughout the working day. They focused on small practical changes in behavior to break up prolonged sitting periods longer than 30 minutes. Participants then discussed potential barriers to positive action and created strategies, or action steps, to counter these barriers.

In Intervention Phase 2, participants received weekly emails for a 16-week period. Emails contained reminders, or behavioral “nudges,” to sit less and move more. They were also sent motivational images, strategic tips, and short readings to motivate them to stay on track with the program. For instance, email prompts encouraged them to do things like stand in their offices rather than sit at their desks and to take breaks to stretch and walk. 

Future Plans

Professor Headley’s DSPH year is complete, but he is following through with his work in the short term and long term with wellness programs and other initiatives. “I hope this is a multi-year effort. Even though my Humanics year is over, I plan on collaborating with the campus recreation staff and asking them as part of their ongoing efforts, to develop programs in which employees can take part. I would like them to encourage faculty, administrators, and staff to reduce their sedentary behavior by breaking up prolonged bouts of sitting. I also want to sustain the messaging to keep the employee group from re-adopting sedentary behaviors,” he said.

Headley continued to do more analysis of the data collected from the employee subject group after his presentation in April. “To further our research, during the summer, we welcomed visiting researcher Xanne Jannes, PhD, from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, where the ActivPal was created. She helped us do more analysis of our findings and has assisted with the preparation of a manuscript, which we intend to submit for publication in the near future,” Headley said.

Headley says this was “fun, but hard, work” and at this writing, he is compiling his findings into several different research papers, which he plans to submit for publication. Asked if he has seen changes on campus as a result of his study and interventional actions, he tells Triangle, “I have seen some—this is of course not objective—it is anecdotal, because we are still doing analysis. But, I am happy to think that awareness of this issue has been raised. My goal is to re-evaluate in two years with objective research to determine whether we have gotten closer to our goal of decreasing the time spent in sedentary behavior, and then to keep on assessing. I’m hoping this is only the beginning of long-term change for the better. I am not done yet.”