Sitting is the new smoking: Unshackle yourself from your desk

June 6, 2018 Providence Health Team

Lack of exercise invites heart disease, diabetes and other problems.

Start thinking about ways to do less sitting each day.

Make choices to take breaks to refresh your mind and find support.

You know the routine. Your coworkers are expecting a finished contribution from you tomorrow, so you need to focus intensively on your work today.

You push the power button, watch the screen come to life, and dive in to your work before most of your colleagues are in the office. Hours later, when you finally feel satisfied with your efforts, you click “Save,” look around and most of them have gone home. Where did the day go?

While you’ve given a good day’s work to your employer, you haven’t done enough for yourself. You’ve spent unbroken hours hunched over your screen, barely pausing for bathroom breaks and to wolf down something that’s still congealing on your desk. 

If this happens to you repeatedly, you’re inviting a range of health problems, including heart disease, musculoskeletal strain, obesity, hypertension and what researchers call “psychosocial disorders.” 

You need to pace yourself, taking breaks during the workday for physical activity and to eat a healthy meal.

Your activity goals

Start with the physical activity. Health care experts recommend that adults ages 18 to 64 get 2 hours and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise of moderate intensity per week, along with muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week. (Alternatively, guidelines say an adult can get 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running, and two days of muscle strengthening work.)

That may not sound like very much exercise, but 80 percent of American adults don’t get enough physical activity through the week

It’s not just the lack of exercise that invites diabetes, heart disease and other problems, but it’s the absolute inertia of sitting all day.

Start thinking about ways to do less sitting each day. You don’t have to set unrealistic goals for yourself — not everyone can spend their lunch hour at the gym. Instead, find small, simple ways to include more movement into your schedule, which could involve anything from taking a two-minute stretch break every 30 minutes to standing up for 10 minutes every hour, whatever fits your style.

You’ve got to eat right, too

Eating junk food or hastily gulping down whatever’s in the vending machine is obviously not a way for you to get the nutrition you need to maintain a healthy weight. Less obviously, it also hurts your workplace performance. 

As the British Heart Foundation puts it: “Without regular well-balanced meals or enough water, employees may suffer from headaches, feel sluggish or have difficulty concentrating.” It’s also a recipe that invites chronic disease, which increases workplace absences and shortens lifespans.

This is largely a matter of individual choice (can you really not take 15 minutes to walk down the block to get a takeout salad?), but increasingly, employers are trying to make it easier for employees to eat well while at work. They’re replacing sugary drinks and high-calorie snacks, creating healthy events and providing resources to help their workers eat healthier foods and portions.

“Since many employees spend at least half of their waking hours working, the good news is that the workplace can actually play a crucial role in setting healthy dietary habits,” notes Healthy Workplaces, an initiative of the University of California-Berkeley, which includes recommendations for employers. 

Workplace stress

While demanding jobs require concentration and prolonged effort, they can create unhealthy levels of stress. “Work-related psychological disorders appear to be a rapidly developing problem,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which has proposed a coordinated national strategy to combat the problem.

British researchers have found that workplace stress makes previously healthy young people more likely to become depressed or feel anxiety. Employers should work to reduce stress in the workplace, they say.

Stress may be a result of workplace conditions, but individual factors also contribute, NIOSH says. Not all of these may be controllable, but workers can make choices to take breaks to refresh their minds and find social and psychological support.

Evaluate your working life and ask yourself if you’re doing the things you can to keep yourself healthy. You can also discuss this with your health care provider, who can offer tips about nutrition and physical activity. You can find a Providence provider near you in our online directory. Check out this infographic on positive postures to boost your mood at home and office.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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