It’s news, but it’s not news: scientists have found that sitting for long periods of time is bad for your health. While you should just be able to feel that a sedentary lifestyle is the inverse of fitness, now there’s evidence that actual negative changes in your body occur while you’re sitting still. Healthy substances that are generated when your muscles flex don’t appear when you’re stationary.
From a recent New York Times article:
Men who normally walk a lot (about 10,000 steps per day, as measured by a pedometer) were asked to cut back (to about 1,350 steps per day) for two weeks, by using elevators instead of stairs, driving to work instead of walking and so on. By the end of the two weeks, all of them had became worse at metabolizing sugars and fats. Their distribution of body fat had also altered — they had become fatter around the middle.
It’s not just at work, either. If you come home and flop on the couch to watch TV or settle in at the computer for heavy-duty web surfing, it compounds the problem. And exercising your thumbs with the PlayStation doesn’t help much.
What’s more, you can’t completely make up for a day of sitting around by working out at 5:00. Among people who observed a program of regular exercise, those who sat the rest of their day were fatter and less healthy than those who moved around throughout the day.
The World Changed, We Didn’t
The prescription for good health is to eat wholesome foods and keep active. It’s what humans did in the days of the caveman and medieval times, through the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century this all changed. The office job was invented, the automobile became popular, and an ever-growing percentage of the “developed” world remained seated virtually from the moment they left the house in the morning until they returned at night. And when they got home, people had fewer “chores,” ever more convenient processed food requiring no preparation, and more passive entertainment options.
The problem is that our bodies haven’t changed they way they operate. The owner’s manual is still the same. Put healthy food in and keep active.
Rage Against the Chair
Fortunately, the same modern world that tries to keep us sitting has created a wide variety of tools and techniques to get us active again. Some of them are incredibly simple, others are a complete lifestyle change—but it’s possible a lifestyle change is just what you need.
From easiest to hardest:
1. Take frequent breaks. Even if you have to sit for your job, you still don’t have to sit for hours at a stretch. Set an alarm and walk away for a few minutes. Don’t leave it up to yourself to remember—there are simple computer programs you can use to alert you every 15-20 minutes that it’s time to get up and walk around or do a few exercises. Scirocco Take a Break (Windows) and Time Out (Mac) are free and will do the job. And stop sending e-mails across the office for trivial information when it’s a perfect opportunity to get up and take a walk.
2. Exercise and stretch throughout the day. Besides your daily workout, have some exercises to do in the office or at home. Even a minute at a time will help you. Do a set of pushups or some lunges. I keep my Iron Gym in the doorway of my home office, and I find myself doing 5-10 pull-ups several times a day. There’s a list of exercises on eHow that can help you shake off atrophy at work.
3. Walk everywhere possible. If you live less than a mile from work, you shouldn’t be taking a car. Walk somewhere to eat your lunch, even if you made your lunch yourself. Walk to do errands. Walk just for the heck of it. Once you get adjusted to walking, it will seem unnatural to get around any differently.
4. Use the stairs. Are you using the elevator to travel fewer than 4-5 floors? You’re wasting energy as well as a prime exercise opportunity. One good exercise habit is to use the restroom on the floor above or below the one you work on.
5. Ditch your chair. If it’s possible, use a standing workstation at the office. Some businesses with good wellness/fitness policies will help you get one. Same at home: elevate your computer to eye level and stand while you surf. If you’re really feeling like pushing the envelope, try a treadmill workstation. If you can’t stand standing, at least consider using a balance ball (which recruits your core to stay seated).
6. Get a Wii. The hardcore gamers are going to roll their eyes, but the Wii owners will have the slimmer waistlines, so who cares? In my opinion this is the single biggest technological boon to fitness since the dumbbell: videogames that force you to move around, keeping you entertained while getting you off the couch. Just keep a firm grip on the controller.
7. Get an active hobby. Or three. Find a sport you’d like to try. Learn to dance. Take a self-defense course. Grab the evening class schedule from the local community college and find the most active classes. Even skills like cooking and woodworking require you to move around. Not only does learning new skills get you off the couch, it makes you a more valuable, rounded person.
8. Take pride in your home. Everyone would like to improve their living space, and it’s a healthier way to spend the weekend than watching TV. Have a list of fixes and improvements to make around your place, and teach yourself to do tasks like putting in light fixtures and switches, re-caulking the bathtub and weeding the lawn. Paint, hang doors…you know, the things men should do.
9. Trade your car for a bike. We’re reaching the “lifestyle change” end of the spectrum here, but these days getting around your town or city by bicycle is easier than ever, not to mention much cheaper than burning petroleum. Many businesses even have shower and locker facilities for cyclist employees. Once you get the hang of cycling, you may even be tempted to get rid of your car! And why not: another technological boon for mankind is something called Zipcar, a kind of auto timeshare that lets you use a car when you really need one, without the expense of a loan, insurance and maintenance. It also frees up your garage for more bike stuff.
10. Get an active job. Why not take a break from the desk like Peter Gibbons in Office Space? You might not want to join a cleanup crew, but there are plenty of jobs that enable you to get out from behind a desk for part or all of your day. Not long ago I moved laterally in the company I worked for, and started handling trade shows. I got to travel, set up and take down a simple booth, and walk the floor glad-handing people. Not to mention that the services counter at each of these huge trade centers was always about a half-mile from our booth. If you’re doing inside sales, consider outside sales. Moonlight as a barista. Or start your own company—that could very well keep you on your feet.
The bottom line here is to put yourself in the healthiest position possible, and that position is not seated. Do what you’re comfortable with, but do something. With the options and technology at our disposal, we should be able to break through the sedentary example set by the last few generations while we improve our entire lifestyle.
Now it’s your turn: what are you doing to keep yourself active at an office job? What other ideas have I missed?