Work Your Body

Thwart on-the-job inactivity by making exercise a part of your workday.

by Eric Schneider

June 2012

A century ago, work typically meant manual labor on a farm or in a factory. And while that’s still true for some workers today, most of us earn a living seated in front of a screen. A recent study conducted at the Work & Health Research Centre of Loughborough University in Lei­cestershire, England found that, on average, people sit for more than five hours and 40 minutes per workday. That’s a considerable amount of time spent off one’s feet.

If you work in an office, it’s easy to find comfort in your daily routine. But working on a computer for hours on end can lead to not only discomfort but more serious ailments as well.

Inactivity’s Hazards

“A growing body of research evidence supports a relationship between prolonged hours of sitting on a daily basis with increased risk of heart disease, pulmonary embolism and a shorter life in general,” says Shirley Archer, author of Fitness 9 to 5: Easy Exercises for the Working Week (Chronicle Books). “Sitting reduces circulation. It contributes to low back pain, neck and shoulder strain, feelings of fatigue and lack of well-being.”

Studies support Archer’s assertions. For example, Taiwanese researchers who followed more than 434,000 people for 12 years found that 54% of the participants were inactive—and that inactivity increased the risk of death as much as a blood pressure increase of up to 50 milligrams of mercury (World Congress of Cardiology 4/12).

Extended bouts of sitting can also be detrimental psychologically. “From a mental standpoint, long periods of inactivity might lead to a buildup of stress, anxiety and even depression,” says David Geier, MD, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and director of Sports Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Many people make this connection intuitively. Archer notes, “If our body is filled with aches and pains, and we are tired, it’s no wonder we might also feel somewhat depressed and have a negative outlook.”

Creative Movement

The ways to add motion to your workweek, besides going to a gym, is to find even brief moments of activity during the day. “Having a positive attitude and seeking out small chances to squeeze in more movement can make a difference between an inactive and an active lifestyle,” says Archer.

Both Archer and Geier agree that simple alterations to normal routines can make a big difference. These include parking further away from the office, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and going to coworkers’ offices to have discussions rather than sending emails.

Though it may seem unlikely, your office can essentially become your gym. Archer explains, “The stairwell is a ‘bun blaster.’ The sink in the restroom is a perfect place to do some quick push-ups. You can even stretch while seated at your desk. It simply takes the mindset to see the chances to move more.”

Archer suggests the “cat stretch” as a way to work out the kinks. To perform this exercise, sit upright near the edge of your chair with your feet on the floor, heels in line with your knees. Place your palms on the top of your thighs. Inhale, and lengthen your spine. Then exhale, rounding your back like an arching cat, and pull your stomach in toward your spine. Relax, and let the weight of your head stretch your neck. Inhale deeply, and sit up tall. Repeat three to five times.

Another exercise consists of turning the basic motion of sitting down into a series of squats. “Every time you go to sit in your desk chair, instead of allowing your hips to touch the seat, return to standing and repeat 10 times,” Archer says. “Repeat this all day every time you return your desk to sit down. Those squats will add up. This is a fantastic functional move to keep your legs, hips and thighs strong.”

Geier notes that other basic activities, such as push-ups and sit-ups, can be performed without equipment and in relatively small office spaces. And, if you favor dumbbells, bicep and tricep curls can become a part of your daily workplace rituals.

To reinforce any office exercise routines you start, get friends and coworkers involved; for example, start a regular lunchtime walking group. “Try to be around other healthy people and make the environment you are immersed in for eight to 12 hours a day a healthy one,” Geier says. “Have photos of people exercising visible. Schedule automatic reminders encouraging you to do short periods of exercise throughout the day.”

Adds Archer, “Concentrate on increasing your mindful awareness of those habitual decisions you make without thinking, such as having an extra cup of coffee with sugar, when simply walking briskly around the office or up and down the stairs will also get your energy moving.”

When it comes to exercise in the office, it’s the little things that make a difference. As Archer puts it, “The bottom line is that health is something we create each day with the small choices that we make.”

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