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New research shows general practitioners (GPs) spend more time sitting down than many other occupations, putting their own health at risk.

The research, carried out by Ulster University, Queen’s University Belfast and University of Southern Denmark, showed GPs spend over 10 and a half hours sitting down every working day, putting them at high risk of health problems associated with excessive sedentary behaviour such as cardiovascular disease.

Sitting for long periods is thought to slow the metabolism, which affects the body's ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and break down body fat. Studies have linked being inactive with being overweight and obese, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and early death.

The researchers calculated the amount of time GPs spend being sedentary using questionnaires and accelerometer devices, worn constantly on the thigh for one week. The 353 participating GPs were found to spend over 10 and a half hours in their working day sitting down, similar to people working in educational and telecom industries.

Through qualitative research, they found workload was cited as the biggest factor in reducing sedentary time among GPs, despite the vast majority saying they would prefer less time sitting down. The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice Open, found that sedentary time had increased as a result of doing more telephone consultations following the Covid-19 pandemic.

From Ulster University there was Mark Tully, Professor of Public Health, and Jason Wilson, Lecturer in Physical Activity and Health in UU’s School of Sport, who worked closely together with their other research team colleagues.

Mark Tully, Professor of Public Health at Ulster University said:

“This research has highlighted that GPs would value support in reducing the time they spend sitting down to benefit their health and wellbeing. GPs also act as important role models for their patients, therefore addressing sedentary behaviour in GPs could be a potential win-win, with both GPs and their patients benefiting.”

Dr Richard Mayne from QUB’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, said:

“It’s surprising to learn that GPs are spending so much time sitting down in their working day, which has increased through the rise in telephone consultations. This goes against the NHS guidelines which advise us to spend less time sitting down to help prevent illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle.”

“When workload can’t be reduced, active workstations are a great way to tackle sedentary behaviour. Only 6% of the GPs we surveyed used sit-stand desks. We hope that our research will help draw attention to this and encourage GPs and other sedentary professions to think about ways to address this.”

This research was funded by the Health and Social Care NI’s Research and Development Division, part of the Public Health Agency.