The skies are gray and the weather is damp and cold; you go out in the dark and go home in the dark. You’re sick and tired of boots and gloves. You’d love to spend the winter somewhere tropical (or at least curl up and hibernate for some of it), but there’s bills to pay, so here you are at work. Which is bad enough, but now there’s a killer stalking you at your desk.
Studies are beginning to show that even people who work out regularly can have the health benefits of their exercise cancelled out by working at sedentary jobs where they sit most of the time. Start with an 8-hour-a-day desk job, add in commuting time in a car or on a bus or subway, top it off with some TV or computer time at the end of the day and you have a LOT of time spent on your duff, with your muscles slack. It’s bad for your back, it’s bad for your metabolism, and it puts you at higher risk of life-shortening problems like heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers. Some experts have even compared it to smoking, in terms of the damage it can do to your health and life expectancy.
The Dangerous Life of the Knowledge Worker
The hazards of working as a firefighter or a construction worker are well known, but few people realize that the long-term effects of a sitting job can hurt you just as much. And even when people do realize, it’s still hard to push back. It’s not like you can do jumping jacks while designing an electrical storage facility, or debugging code. The need for constant boosts to your focus and alertness can make caffeine and sugar your essential pick-me-ups. And by the end of the day, the combination of stress and confinement can leave you exhausted — who can face exercise at that point?
The Cure: Motion Mini-Breaks
The same science that identified the problem has also identified the fix. It’s deceptively simple and surprisingly easy. Find as many ways as possible to work short movement breaks into your day. Jump off the bus two stops early and walk the rest of the way to work. Park in the farthest area of the lot. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Clear your head with a walk around the building instead of a trip to the coffee room. Walk to a colleague’s desk to talk rather than telephoning them. Move your trash bin to the far side of your cubicle so that you need to stand up to throw something out. Break up your sitting time as much as possible with short spurts of motion. It adds up. If your workplace permits, consider sitting on a yoga ball; it requires you to constantly move your core muscles (wonderful for the back) and you can fidget to your heart’s content while you work.
Take a Stand
Anything that gets you out of a sitting position helps. Even just standing can fire up the muscles and boost circulation. Stand up when you’re on the phone. Stand up for one-on-one meetings if possible (some can even be done while you walk together). Stand up on the bus on your way to work and your leg muscles will get an extra challenge as you keep your balance and stay upright through turns, starts and stops. Some workplaces even have height-adjustable desks so that employees can opt to stand while reading emails or documents.
Team Up for Success
If you’re the type who craves the quiet of a solo lunchtime walk, then go enjoy yourself. But if a drizzly day or a busy schedule will make you back out of your walking plans, then maybe you need a “walk buddy” – or even a “walk group”. Ask around. You’ll probably find others who are interested in better health, and it’s harder to slack off when you know that everyone else is expecting you at the front door at 12:15. And it can be a wonderful opportunity to network, problem-solve, or just blow off steam.
Little Things Add Up
Just as studies have shown that a sedentary job causes unhealthy changes in your various metabolic markers (blood pressure, blood glucose, insulin sensitivity, etc.), the combined effect of many small movement breaks can reverse those changes. And the dividends don’t stop there. You’ll find you need less of that midafternoon caffeine and sugar when you use short bursts of physical activity as your pick-me-up. You’ll have more energy at the end of the day. Which is good, because you may need it to go shopping… for new clothes because the old ones have become too big!