Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
21 Jun

The Art of Work: Avoiding the Pitfalls of a Sedentary Job

A series of recent studies have implicated sedentary lifestyle in the obesity epidemic. The idea is, even if you hit the gym a few times a week, parking it in front of the T.V. at night dwindles away any benefits gained. Every hour on the couch costs us dearly. But what about the office chair? Dare we take this one on? A recent study does exactly that in targeting the specific role of sedentary work in our nation’s obesity crisis. Our desk jobs, the study’s authors suggest, represent a key culprit behind our society’s expanding waistlines.

Dr. Timothy Church, Dr. John McIlhenny and their associates examined trends related to occupational activity and the corresponding increase in American obesity rates since the 1960s. Fifty years ago, over fifty percent of occupations included moderate physical exertion. Today that number has dropped to less than twenty percent. In keeping with this pattern, Drs. Church and McIlhenny suggest we use, on average, a hundred calories less during a workday than we did fifty years ago. The impact of this change adds up over time – one belt notch at a time.

It makes sense. Sure, a lot of people in this country watch a lot of T.V. However, most of us spend more time at our jobs during the workweek than we do at home – when it comes to non-sleeping hours, that is. Add up eight hours (at least), lunch (which we may or may not actually take), and commute (more sitting!), and you’re looking at ten hours effectively stricken from the “free time for fitness” schedule. Ten hours is a lot to try to make up for. (What would Grok say?) By the time we get home, there’s cooking, cleaning, laundry, phone calls, and bills. That doesn’t even allow for our partners, our kids, friends, and any volunteer or social engagements. Suddenly, it’s 11:00. It’s hard not to see the study authors’ point.

It wasn’t always this way of course. A hundred years ago most of us were farmers or factory workers. Even those who worked in shops carried and stocked their own shelves. Nurses, doctors, and other service attendants were on their feet all day. Work meant manual labor to all but a relative few. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not pining for the good old days of child labor and 12-hour work days, six days a week. As Dr. Church suggests, however, there’s something significant to be learned from the trend itself.

In the last couple of decades, many business leaders have come to understand that a healthy set of employees means fewer sick days, lower insurance costs, and increased productivity. Companies have increasingly started reimbursing gym memberships or other health equipment. Some offer workplace gyms (and the opportunity to use them over a lunch hour or break). The message with these programs has mostly been this, however: do it, but do it on your own time. The idea of working out during the workday itself introduces a new angle and may be somewhat of a game changer.

Some businesses have already jumped on the wagon. The convertible standing workstations outfitted with customized treadmills have established a kind of gold standard, an ideal style workstation that I think most of us find ourselves daydreaming about at some point. One study suggests these vertical, treadmill equipped workstations alone could allow obese workers to lose some 30 kilograms a year with just two hours of work day use. Despite the $4000+ price tag, some companies offer them to each employee and even stock small conference rooms with them. They believe the investment in worker health pays off with increases in employee efficiency as well as boosts to individual creativity and meeting productivity.

There are less expensive options, however. Research has shown that offering a portable pedal machine (essentially a footstool sized set of pedals) is enough to significantly add exercise for study participants (some up to 13.5 miles cycled per day). All subjects reported that they’d continue using the device if their employers offered them the option. The devices in question cost around $90-$100. Compare that to the cost of a single sick day or a month’s worth of insulin supplies.

Even without specific workplace equipment, there’s plenty we can do to counteract the sedentary nature of our jobs. How many of us with desk jobs skip our breaks and take lunch at our desk? How often do we actually get up out of our chairs? Research demonstrates that even small breaks make big differences. Breaks as short as a minute were enough to make a positive difference in both subjects’ waist size and C-reactive protein measures. The more, the merrier. How about keeping a set of light dumbbells or kettlebells at your desk for some lifts here and there? Maybe one of those step platforms for calf raises? Then there’s always the chance to run up and down the office stairwells. Take advantage of the empty conference room to do a few minutes of yoga. Go ahead: be that guy or gal. Why not?

I happen to believe in the concept of individual initiative (as well as responsibility), but I also believe that good health doesn’t just benefit a person’s after hours home life. A business has plenty to gain from a healthy workforce. I know mine does (three of my employees are now sporting standing workstations). Perhaps more business owners and managers will consider how some of these options can serve their workplace efficiency and employee retention. Maybe more individual employees will take it upon themselves to initiate their own measures – whether at their own desks or in the community rooms. Studies – and media stories – like these can hopefully make these conversations – and productive changes – easier.

The ultimate, underlying message of this study for me is the emphasis on active living as a whole. For too long we’ve heard about twenty minutes three times a week. We’re so bent on minimizing efforts, honing in on the absolute minimum exertion we must make, we’ve lost the forest through the trees. That’s what I love about the Grok example. The lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors offers a historically sound standard, a telling model that we can measure against the life we live today. Our history can teach us about our genetic expectations, which contemporary research can then confirm. Too often, we see how far modern life has strayed from physiological imperatives.

As Dr. Ross Brownson, an epidemiologist who took up the workplace inactivity question just a few years ago, responded to the recent study in a New York Times article a few weeks ago: “‘We need to think about physical activity as a more robust concept than just recreational physical activity…. 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.’” Hmmm…activity as a lifestyle itself. As much moderate and slow moving as we can muster. Does that sound familiar to anyone here?

Finally, for those whose particular job duties or workplace culture negate the possibility of active adaptations, rest assured you’re not doomed to a life of ill health despite all your at-home efforts. (We all knew this, correct?) Certainly, it’s worth taking the breaks you can and indulging in the exercise you can manage during the workday. However, make your free time fitness count for all it can with interval training and as much general activity as you can fit into your personal hours. If stress is an issue at your job, keep the damage to a minimum with a simple stress management practice (e.g. yoga, Tai Chi, etc.) at home and sneak a minute of mantras or poses into your day. Finally, diet of course is 80% of the body weight picture (sounds familiar, no?). Your Primal plan has you covered.

Thanks for reading today. Let me know what you think of the workplace-obesity connection. How has an active job been healthy for you? Alternately, how have you gotten creative coping with a sedentary one? Have a great week, everybody!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Thanks for this article. After reading it, I remembered I had a desk exerciser right under my desk that I never used. I just pulled it out and starting using it. And I put in a request to make my desk a standing desk and they are going to have it done for me by the time I get in tomorrow. My life is changed forever!

    Jisun wrote on June 21st, 2011
  2. Great post.

    Since I have a lot of free time right now I’m playing a decent amount of video games. After reading this post and the post about sitting, I’ve been playing my games while standing.

    Tom wrote on June 21st, 2011
  3. I’ve been working out in my cubicle for years. Easy fast and effective. Pushups, pistol squats, poses, balance activities etc and stretching. You can get effective results in 5 minutes or 15.

    Mike H wrote on June 21st, 2011
  4. We were just talking at the office today, that it would be cool to have standing workstations with a treadmill.

    I work in a high-stress technical support job all day and tied to a phone in a cubicle. I consider myself lucky if I get my two 15 minute breaks a day, though I do try to walk as far as I can for my 1 hr. lunch. Unfortunately, not getting as much sunshine as I need, since I work in one of those “hermetically sealed” skyscrapers. When the weather is cooler, I walk outside for lunch, but with 100+ degree days right now (w/almost 100% humidity), I mostly walk in the very air conditioned tunnel system that links most of the buildings in downtown Houston. However, I do manage to get in at least a mile most days.

    Unfortunately, high stress tend to incur mental fatigue that translates into physical fatigue when you get home. I wish my chair in front of the TV at home wasn’t so damn comfortable!

    Grace wrote on June 21st, 2011
  5. My job is about 2/3 standing/walking and 1/3 sitting and staring at the computer. I try to spice it up a little, though (it would be more sitting if I sat at my lab bench, but I stand when working unless I need to write a lot; then it’s really awkward to bend that way for a long time).

    My lab bench is around the right height for angled pushups and arm dips, as is the bench in the dark room, and I often have whole armadas of 5 minute incubations, so I intersperse them with quick little spurts of exercise. I also like to run up and down the building stairs before work, as I’m usually the first one in.

    Luckily, I usually also have a few longer breaks in experiments during the day. I usually take off on a long walk (sometimes to the coffee cart, which is probably my biggest nutritional vice) during one or two of these. So despite my absolutely terrible pay, I’m probably pretty lucky with respect to how my job works.

    Cass wrote on June 21st, 2011
  6. I feel so incredibly lucky to not only have a job I love as an occupational therapist but to spend most of my day moving like Grok; walking, stooping, kneeling, squating, lifting. We also have standing workstations. The only time I sit is typically at lunch.

    I used to work in an outpatient hand therapy clinic where I sat all day–my back hurt so much from that work. Ironic considering that I perform “back-breaking work” now and rarely have back pain. I’ll never go back to sitting.

    fritzy wrote on June 21st, 2011
  7. So we’re supposed to stand at home too?

    Marc wrote on June 21st, 2011
  8. I used to have back ache from sitting at a desk and it culminated in me putting my back out last year and for a few weeks I couldnt sit down. I built my keyboard and monitor up at work on boxes and books so I could stand and my back healed nicely. Ever since I’ve kept it that way and my back has not ached since.

    Everyone thinks im odd for standing up because nobody else does it, but who cares when I feel so much better for it. Its so easy to remain seated all day in an office and forget to take a break, when your standing its much easier to do.

    The only downside now is my back gets sore from sitting down too long, especially in the car, but I guess thats a small price to pay and fortunately its rare I ever have to drive for long periods of time.

    Daniel wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  9. I work for myself so stand, squat, kneel as I feel the need. Even so I still don’t feel like I get to move enough as I should. I wonder perhaps if my next step should be one of these fairly dorky looking Connect-a-desk laptop holders:

    If anyone has used them I’d be interested to hear any feedback.

    Nick Lo wrote on June 22nd, 2011
    • check out the StandnSit available at

      Lisa Tullius wrote on July 2nd, 2011
  10. I’m lucky to have a desk with a motor so I can adjust the height depending if I want to sit or stand up during my workday. I always try to throw in 1-2 sessions of standing up every day, usually on one leg at a time. Apart from that I take any excuse to walk. I go to the bathroom farthest away, pick the printer farthest away, go get a glass of water in the lunchroom etc. All the little things add up. I think the key is to not sit for too long without getting up and move. I can definitely feel the difference in my body when I don’t get up and move regularly!

    Hanna wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  11. I don’t work much so I’m free to exercise as I like. However if I were to get a job I’d make sure the company puts employee wellbeing ahead of their profits. I ain’t compromise my health so the owners of some company make a little more money. No way.

    Joseph wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  12. Mark,

    I’ve often wondered if a morning workout is a good way to counteract some of the ill effects of a sedentary job. After a hard workout your body is working to repair it’s self and you require rest in order to recover. It seems like you might as well take advantage of the 8 hours of rest you are about to have. Do you think the “afterburn” effect of a morning workout might also provide a reduction in c-reactive protein measures for part of your sedendary work day?

    Rob wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  13. I feel like these articles are always condescending to those of us who work in an office. I do move around and stay active all day, on vacation. During the workweek, I deliberately walk several blocks for lunch and make sure I take a mid morning and mid afternoon break to walk around a little.

    Masterlock wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  14. Trusts and estates attorney here — which means that I basically either sit at my desk or in a conference room for nine hours a day. It sucks.

    I’ve adopted a basic plan — Work for 50-55 minutes, and then get up for 5-10 minutes. Get up and use the restroom, walk around the building, go chat with a co-worker, whatever, but stay on my feet for 5-10 minutes. Sometimes I do Grok Squats or pushups. And even though I always eat lunch at my desk, I’ll typically go walk around downtown for 20-30 minutes before doing so, as a way of stretching my legs and getting my sunshine. For the most part, it works great.

    Felix wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  15. Movement throughout the day is definitely key to overall good health. We have an inexpensive, innovative solution at StandinGoodHealth. We are launching a new product, Stand’nSit that is a desktop workstation that allows you to go from sitting to standing in seconds at anytime throughout the day. Please visit our website and facebook page for more information.

    Lisa Tullius wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  16. It’s funny. I live in a boarding school with individual rooms and someone stole my chair a while ago. So here I am with some books under my laptop still stood up.

    Harry wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  17. I am a high school teacher and every class that I teach is 80 minutes long. I’m trying to find ways to incoportate these ideas into the classroom. Not easy when education for decades has focused on students seated quitly in rows for hours at a time. Not easy when school boards do not want to spend money on stand up desks. Alas, I am trying!

    Emily wrote on June 22nd, 2011
    • Emily, Take a look at the Stand’nSit. Its a desktop workstation that you could buy for yourself for only $299.99.Bring it into the classroom for work and then take it home when you want to. Its available at There is also a facebook page.

      Lisa Tullius wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  18. I will go everyday into the one-person bathroom we have (this sounds bad…but luckily that room is kept immaculately clean!) and do handstand pushups, tricep dips, and inclined pushups (the last two using the counter) at least twice each day. Drinking lots of water (or fluids in general for those who can’t stand to keep drinking water alone) forces me to get up and move frequently!

    Kevin wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  19. According to Esther Gokhale ( we are all sitting, standing and walking the wrong way. After following her advice for about a week, I’m able to sit far more comfortably, and not get back strain. There was a mention of her on this blog a while back, so I just wanted to put in a good word for her method.

    Susan wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  20. While I think there are plenty of good reasons to avoid being sedentary at work or at home I’m not sure if physical activity has a lot to do with the obesity epidemic. Gary Taubes devotes the 3rd chapter of his “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do about It” on this question and examines the scientific literature on activity levels and obesity. He found very little evidence that activity decreases obesity. There are a ton of reasons why strenuous exercise is good for you but I think there is room for debate whether it will make you lose weight.

    Dave wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  21. I read about one of these movement studies that was profiled in the New York Times and what they did was take a bunch of people and start feeding them more food daily. Some of those people started moving around more and fidgeting after their caloric intake went up, while the physical activity level of others did not change. The people who moved the least and the people who gained the most weight had significant statistical overlap.

    I remember the fidgeting being mentioned specifically. And this is important.


    Because people do not choose to fidget.

    Conversely, then, they cannot be choosing not to fidget.

    Those of you who have longstanding fidgeting habits know exactly what I am talking about. Ever tried to break that habit? You know you have. At the least, your mothers tried to nag it out of you when you were kids, if you’re my age (late 30s) or older. Did it work? Of course not. Not for most of you, anyway.

    But the way the researchers presented this study, it was as if the people who got fatter consciously chose to move for two hours less a day than the people who did not get fat. And because they chose to move for two hours less a day, that’s why they got fat.

    I call B.S.

    Gary Taubes presented a lot of information in Good Calories, Bad Calories that seems to point to the underlying processes that drive obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, also driving a decrease in physical activity–that whatever is making you fat and sick is also sapping your drive to move around.

    I have also spoken with many low-carbers and Paleo/Primal types who were total couch potatoes when they began, but as they got adjusted to their new dietary pattern, suddenly all their energy came back. Or showed up for the first time in their lives.

    The good food was driving the good metabolism which was driving the urge to get up and move around. You do not get a good metabolism by just moving around. That’s not how it works.

    How many athletes have you seen, not Olympic level but just into sports or whatever, who were skinny-fat or worse? How many NFL athletes have you seen who were overweight or obese? Now how much physical activity do you suppose they have to do to perform those sports in the first place?

    Think about it. You look at a fat person and you decide they need to not sit at their desk for an office job. God forbid. When was the last time you told an on-season NFL player that he needed to move around more? You wouldn’t dare, right?

    The whole basis of this is flawed. I don’t think fat gain is about calories eaten versus calories exercised, which is what most people mean when they say “calories in vs. calories out.” I think fat gain is about calories stored in fat versus calories let out of fat. And that can vary widely, regardless of how little you eat or how much you move.

    But hey, that’s not easy to measure and it lets fat people off the hook, and never mind that there are slender people getting type 2 diabetes in their twenties and thirties.

    The Army teaches its candidate noncommissioned officers that the first step in solving a problem is identifying the problem. Y’all do realize, don’t you, that you’ve been preaching the eat-less-exercise-more model of weight loss for something like fifty years now, and it’s STILL not working?

    Clearly, then, you have not identified the problem. So… Back to square one, please.

    Dana wrote on June 22nd, 2011
    • I should add here in response to people who’ve said that someone they know stopped moving around as much and then gained weight: Yeah, sure, you can force yourself to move around when you don’t really want to. And sometimes that can cause a little weight loss. But if you have an underlying condition of hyperinsulinism that’s keeping your body from accessing fatty acids as between-meal energy–and absent some lab tests, you don’t know that you don’t, even if you are slender–then your body will sort out other ways of getting that energy if you force it to do things it’s not energetically equipped to do.

      Like break down your muscle and turn it into glucose.

      Happens a lot with runners and bicyclers, or so I hear.

      If you cannot be sedentary and stay in a normal weight range *and* have a normal bodyfat percentage then you are doing something wrong or something is wrong with your body. It’s ridiculous that you have the potential to suffer a crippling injury, an experience which surely was well-known to the Homo genus all the way back to its beginnings in Africa, but that biology would work against you to make you die of a heart attack because you dared rest and recuperate.

      (And please don’t start in on me about the lion-chow thing. I don’t think humans have ever been a solitary animal, and a tribe that would not scare the lions or hyenas away from their sick and ill was a tribe that would not last very long on the evolutionary scale. Huge difference between having a broken leg or a cold, and being evolutionarily unfit.)

      Dana wrote on June 22nd, 2011
      • Excellent points well expressed. The correlation of moving around and healthy body weight does not mean that moving around drives weight loss. Exercise alone cannot fix a broken metabolism, and it certainly can’t make up for a poor diet.

        For what it’s worth, I also used to be very inert, and forcing myself to exercise more hardly budged the needle on the scale, even when I gave it my all. It certainly didn’t give me more energy throughout the day. Only after cutting the junk from my diet did I find my energy levels rising to the point where I had to get up and move around. These days I am quite fidgety indeed. So your explanation is very sound to me.

        Timothy wrote on June 23rd, 2011
      • Dana, I am a fidgeter, too. Yes, I’m in my 30s and to this day my mom still accuses me of being “nervous.” But these days I just smile and say it keeps me thin.

        I quit worrying about when I was sitting at my 60-year-old tai chi teacher’s kitchen table, felt it vibrating, and realized HE was the one jiggling his leg. And no one would accuse the old man of being “nervous” or “stressed.”

        I think you hit the nail on the head–good food and good exercise creates extra energy.

        taihuibabe wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  22. When I worked a desk job I would make sure to drink a bottle of water an hour, thus making me get up quite frequently to use the ladies room. There I would do walking lunges, wall push ups, wall sits, etc to make sure I was never sedentary!

    thegetinshapegirl wrote on June 22nd, 2011
  23. I also have a desk job which is sendentary all day. Since I am on the 15th floor, I take time once or twice a day to take the stairs from and to the 15th floor to get some exercise. Or if I feel lethargic, I try to take the stairs again.

    satish wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  24. First I want to say that I enjoyed the post, it’s definitely a growing problem in the work environment. There are some really neat solutions that you offer as well, I think people who have jobs where they sit all day can really benefit.

    I was curious to know if you could clarify your first statement though. That even though you may exercise that sitting watching TV can dwindle away any benefits. I was looking at your reference and I didn’t seem to find where it mentioned any dwindling of benefits. They do mention that their CVD percentage per hours of TV watched took into account exercise (among other things) but didn’t really reference CVD and sitting in front of the TV in relation to exercise and loss of benefits. There’s no mention of what percentage of people developed CVD in spite of exercising, what their level of exercise might have been and there’s no mention of nutrition whatsoever in the study as far as I can see.

    I’m asking because when I read this I thought immediately “Oh no, I’m negating my exercise by sitting watching TV.” and it doesn’t seem that the research is really saying that. Now I’m not trying to make excuses to sit and watch TV, I don’t even own a TV but I do a lot of researching online and they seem quite similar. So I was wondering if you were maybe also making reference to some other research not mentioned.

    Now none of this negates the bulk of the blog and that’s why I started off by saying I enjoyed it, I just wanted to clear up a question I had.

    Thanks :)

    Ian wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  25. I just came accross this great website today. it emails you at your selected time a little exercise you can do while at your desk. Its quite nice.

    Jess T wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  26. Years ago there was talk about standing all day and vericose veins… Anyone have any info on that? I love standing at work, but thought I should see if there is any correlation between the two. Thx

    CAn8tive wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  27. Teaching young children (like being a stay at home mom) is such a healthy job in terms of activity levels. I am mostly on my feet moving at a moderate pace but I sit down to read them stories and to do work on the computer for short periods throughout the day. Also, there’s P.E. :) When I have to go to all day trainings or meetings, it drives me crazy. I fidget and eat too much and feel crmmy.

    DThalman wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  28. Thought provoking post here. People are spending too much time tied to a desk and not enough time living a life. There are ways around this problem but only for motivated individuals.

    Tilly Davies wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  29. I always find it a little bit sad that the things we think are providing us comfort eventually become traps. In my office when the lift breaks down it’s pandemonium!

    If you suggest people take the stairs they look at you like you’re crazy……..these are the same people who want to know how come I’m in shape.


    Michael wrote on June 24th, 2011
  30. I have a standup workstation that I use a lot. I also will randomly do some squats, pull-ups or push-ups.

    Are any of you willing to be the first one in your office to do 10 squats and 10 push-ups every hour? Or even the person to walk to your coworker to send a message instead of emailing it.

    Be the start. Be the change. Make a difference. It’s a riot when you do!

    Primal Toad wrote on June 24th, 2011
  31. A pound an hour, that’s what a desk job does for me. I learned this when I switched from 30 hours a week to 40 hours a week. As my hours increased, I gained 10 lbs.

    To combat the creep:
    1.I asked the bldg management to open the stairwell to foot traffic so I didn’t have to take the elevator all the time.
    2.I parked on the top floor of the parking structure and used the stairs.
    3.I got my boss to allow me to take an extra few minutes to walk to the bank as opposed to driving.

    Great article!


    J wrote on June 24th, 2011
  32. I have been working in call centers for the past three years and going to school I can definitely agree that office jobs like these only make you gain weight. I had maintained a weight that I considered normal and now I am struggling to shed the pounds I gained over the three years where all I had available during downtime was a vending machine that consisted of cookies and honey buns/

    Mariajose wrote on June 24th, 2011
  33. Mark,

    Over the past few months, I have been playing pickup soccer with coworkers during lunch once a week. This has made a huge difference in my outlook towards work and my overall mental health and productivity.

    I work a traditional office setting, but I believe fully in the importance of work-life balance and being physically active every day (the longer the better). I used to buy into 20 minutes 3 times a week, but now I am convinced that optimal health demands much more than this.


    Alykhan wrote on June 26th, 2011

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