A few years ago, researchers found compelling evidence that “frequent sitters” have an increased risk of becoming obese and developing cancer, heart disease and other life-shortening ailments. Dr. James Levine director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative said that, “We are sitting ourselves to death. We lose two hours of life for every hour we sit.” So that’s scary.
But like everything you read on the World Wide Web, you need to dig a little deeper to get the real story. The more factual message is: Rather than being the “new smoking,” we need to think of sitting as an important part of the wider problem of physical inactivity. We also need to read behind the headlines! Research just published shows 30-40% of media stories on sedentary behavior promote misleading messages, such as sitting undoes the benefits of exercise. So, the first priority is to reinforce the most evidence-based message: move as often as possible — which is not easy when you have a desk job and you’re in a cubicle or open workspace.
Once you park yourself at your desk, log on to your computer and start doing your work, you’re likely to hunker down and sit for hours without moving. Maybe that won’t kill you, but you don’t need a doctor or scientist to tell you that when you sit too long, you feel blah. You’ll pretty quickly feel fatigued and develop brain fog, bad posture, sore achy muscles, back and neck pain and shallow breathing. There is no upside to prolonged sitting.
Dr. Levine admits that building physical activity into your workday “is incredibly difficult, especially for a computer-centric workforce.” So it takes some planning. Your health, attitude and energy level will improve if you set goals, devise a plan to be more active throughout your day, and use prompts that will remind you to follow your plan.
First you have to prepare to get moving.
Dress for Success at Your Desk
When your clothing is constricting or uncomfortable, you’re not going to be motivated to move. Fortunately, office fashion is trending more toward comfort than formality and many clothing designers, especially yoga brands, are answering the demand for attire that is both professional and made from fabrics that don’t restrict your ability to move every which way.
Women will have no trouble finding office appropriate skirts, pants, jeans, tops and jackets that contain Lycra. You can put together a professional outfit that is literally as comfortable as your yoga wear and no one will know that you could throw your leg over your shoulder or twist yourself into a pretzel without popping a seam.
If you’re intimidated by the thought of pulling it off, or not so great at putting together outfits, many stores offer free personal shopping services and can help you find the comfortable “stretch” pieces that will fit your style and workplace dress code.
Photo credit: Ministry of Supply
Even if you’re perfectly comfortable in your khakis and button down, fashion executive Gihan Amarasiriwardena might inspire you to reconsider your clothing for the office. “Performance shouldn’t be limited to the field,” says Amarasiriwardena. “The time you really have to perform is at the office.” His company “makes men’s office clothes that do the things workout gear does: stretch and breathe and wick.”
Men’s office appropriate performance clothing is available from many retailers — look for elastane, Lycra, spandex on the “fabric content” tag.
Reminders to Move
Maintain Good Posture: Sitting up straight is a difficult posture to maintain. After about 30 minutes, you’re going to start hunching and slumping — that’s your sign that it’s time to take a break and move.
According to Rebecca Campbell from UPMC Centers for Rehab Services, “Ideally, a desk chair should be fitted for each individual person. Any lumbar support that your chair may have should allow for the natural curvature of the spine and prevent an increased arch in your low back. The depth and height of the seat should be positioned to allow your hips and knees to be bent 90° ensuring your feet remain flat on the floor. The back of the chair should be inclined at an angle where your back can rest against it, avoiding pressure on the lumbar spine.”
Chair Swap: Place an exercise/stability ball next to your chair as a visual prompt to get up and stretch, then sit on the stability ball which will challenge your posture, balance and core. Plus, you can use it to build some stability ball exercises into your day.
Keep in mind that using a stability ball for extended periods is not recommended. Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College says “Sitting on a ball creates an increased load on the lumbar (lower back) spine and discomfort over time. Prolonged periods of sitting, whether in a chair or on an exercise ball, can also lead to poor body mechanics and posture. Instead of swapping one for the other, avoid the ‘all or nothing’ mentality so common in health and fitness. Instead of ditching your desk chair entirely for an exercise ball or skipping out on using the ball altogether, Matthews recommends alternating between sitting on the two throughout the day for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.”
Pomodoro Technique – This technique provides a strong reminder to take a break. The idea is to use a timer to break your work into focused time blocks (usually 25 minutes) separated by a 5-minute break. After 4 consecutive working time blocks, take a longer break, around 15 or 20 minutes. This method can be pretty effective for people who tend to get engrossed in their work and regularly suffer the effects of sitting too long. And you don’t need an app or anything fancy, just a timer that you most likely have on your phone or computer.
Seated Yoga Sequence
In this video, Rachel Brathren, aka Yoga Girl, demos a short and sweet yoga sequence that you can do at the office.
1. Posture Name: Forward Bend
Action: Sit tall, take a deep breath and exhale as you fold forward, resting torso on thighs, breath deep for 5 to 10 breaths, to exit, place hands on knees and roll the spine up.
2. Posture Name: Boat Pose
Action: Sit tall, reach hands to feet holding toes, tilt back letting the back of the chair to support you, allowing you to fully extend your spine. Breath deep for 5 to 10 breaths.
This posture strengthens abdomen and muscles of the spine, stimulates kidneys and intestines- improving digestion, helps to relieve stress.
3. Posture Name: Quad Stretch
Action: Sit to the side of the chair, lift outside leg holding foot, allow knee to drop toward the floor, stretching thighs, knees, and ankles. Keep abdominal muscles engaged to avoid pulling on the low back. Breath deep for 5 to 10 breaths.
This posture is an excellent stretch for the psoas muscle and the muscles of the hips and legs, that tighten from too much sitting and stress.
4. Posture Name: Reverse Warrior
Action: Sit to the side of the chair, front leg at a bent and back leg extended, making sure that both feet are placed flat on the floor. Take a deep breath and exhale as you bend back, lifting the front arm and extending the back arm. Breath deep for 5 to 10 breaths.
This posture is a wonderful side stretch. Opens the intercostal muscles that often get compressed from long hours of sitting.
5. Posture Name: Extended Side Angle
Action: A wonderful posture to find length from your fingers to your toes! Sitting sideway on your chair, keep inside leg bent and extend outside leg. Take a deep breath and exhale forward placing front arm on leg for support. Back arm drop toward floor and swinging it forward from a complete stretch from fingers to toes.
This posture stretches complete side body increasing stamina, stimulating organs, and expanding space for a full breath!
6. Posture Name: Half Moon
Action: Standing behind a chair, bend forward placing both hands onto the seat of the chair. Choose one leg to stand on, lifting the other leg with a flexed foot, lift the same arm as the flexed foot, and begin to rotate toward that side of the room.
This postures builds strength and a sense of balance. Strengthens muscles of the spine, abdomen, ankles, leg and buttocks. Stretches groins, hamstrings, calves, chest and spine. Helps relieve stress and improves digestion.
“The eyes were not made to do extensive close work. But now, almost all of our processing is happening at a near distance, and that puts extra strain on eye muscles,” says Marc Grossman, behavioral optometrist and licensed acupuncturist. Eye yoga exercises sooth and rejuvenate your eyes; when done mindfully, they can draw your attention inward and quiet the mind. In this article, yoga and meditation teacher Claudia Cummins describes the steps to four eye exercises you can do at your desk.
Let Your Freak Flag Fly
Indeed you will make a spectacle of yourself when you do jump squats at your desk. Emily Milan, Internal Medicine Intern at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC, who says, “There’s nothing wrong with a brief spaz sesh” has put together this nice, long list of “deskercises,” some of which are more conspicuous than others.
Instead of worrying about looking foolish or feeling embarrassed, consider yourself a leader who is starting a movement — i.e., Shaping the Work Culture. In a Ted Talk called “How to Start a Movement,” Derek Sivers said, “When one person does something, he or she may be declared a ‘lone nut’ — but when two or three join? Then you have a leader and a movement.”
Get your office mates to join in and start a movement!
In terms of moves that are doable in an office space, The Washington Post tested 12 exercises to see which ones real people could incorporate into a workday. They rated each of the exercises on difficulty, sweatiness and the average level of humiliation felt while doing the exercise at the office. (But remember, you’re shaping the work culture and you’re not going to worry about feeling embarrassed or humiliated!) Download, print and post this guide at your desk and share it with your intrepid officemates.
Hit the Road
Modern day meetings are arguably less efficient than ever. The urge to multitask (or whatever!) is strong when you have your phone and/or laptop on the table in front of you.
Break tradition by setting up a “walking” meeting and leave the distracting electronics behind.
First, read up on “How to Do Walking Meetings Right.” Some important points:
- Do not surprise colleagues or clients with walking meetings – give them notice so they can dress for comfort
- Stick to small groups – ideally a maximum of three people
- Be mindful of your colleagues physical limitations
Studies have found that walking boosts creative inspiration, and walking and talking side by side cuts through hierarchical work distinctions and sets you and your colleagues at ease, which enhances a positive working spirit.
Research suggests that interacting with nature can reduce stress, make you feel happier, relieve attention fatigue, increase creativity, and even make you more kind and generous. Even if you don’t have access to green space, simply stepping outside exposes you to fresh air and natural light which improves your physical and mental well-being.
Despite the health and communication advantages of a walking meeting, your colleagues may resist your invitation, i.e., “How can we possibly have a meeting without our laptops, cell phones, or even a piece of paper?!”
Present them with the data and explain the benefits. They really can’t argue against giving it a try. Remember that this is a very small meeting — you’ll have to convince three people max!
When you can leave the office and get to a gym, you’re probably limited by time. According to Phil Tyne, former conditioning coach for the San Diego Chargers, “It’s not about the length of your workout, it’s about the intensity. Research has shown that even just 15 minutes of exercise can net you nearly the same effects as 60 minutes of working out, if you increase the intensity.”
Mari Croze, a personal trainer at the Central Michigan State University Fitness Center says a lunch hour workout is easier than you think; her advice: “On days you plan to work out, make sure you’ve packed your gym bag with everything you need for the day, wear work clothes that make it easy for you to change, and bring a brown-bag lunch.”
If You Break a Sweat
After a good sweaty workout, ideally you’ll have time for and access to shower facilities. If not, you can fake it. Pack a bag with baby wipes, deodorant, and dry shampoo and you’ll have everything you need for a “faux shower.”
For those who sweat from the smallest effort, such as the seated yoga poses, breathable, sweat wicking clothes might help. If that’s not enough, the International Hyperhidrosis Society has compiled a list of products that can help manage excessive sweating.
Last But Not Least: Meditation
David Allan of The Wisdom Project asserts that though the office is busy, stressful, and un-meditation-friendly, it’s actually an ideal place to meditate because it’s a place where you go most days of the week and it’s where meditation is needed most.
A few minutes of meditation or pranayama at your desk can reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, increase resilience and boost your energy. You’re going to need that energy and resilience to accomplish the exercise goals you’ve set for yourself!
In 2011, The New York Times reported that, “Jobs requiring moderate physical activity, which accounted for 50 percent of the labor market in 1960, have plummeted to just 20 percent. The remaining 80 percent of jobs are sedentary or require only light activity.” Dr. Ross Brownson epidemiologist and leading expert in chronic disease prevention writes, “In many ways we’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives, so we’ve got to find ways to put it back into our lives, like taking walks during breaks or having opportunities for activity that are more routine to our daily lives, not just going to the health club.”
As with anything in life, your good intentions mean nothing if you don’t follow through. Make your plan, and stick with it.