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. I love sitting on a gym ball when I work on my pc at home. It’s more comfy, easier on your back/joints/etc and easier to do all sorts of covert exercise on. I know someone who sits on a gym ball in his work office. He just stashes it under his desk when he leaves, and no trouble from the management…and it’s pretty hard to steal a massive gym ball unnoticed, so its quite safe in that sense!

    Milla wrote on September 4th, 2011
  2. There’s something else I rarely see mentioned. Many of us are knowledge workers. I’m a writer. Writing is 85% thinking; 15% typing. There is no particular reason that my non-break work time needs to happen at the desk.

    When I work on fee-based projects, my day looks NOTHING like 8 hours sitting at a desk. I might take some notes and make some outlines for an hour or two over coffee, then go for a walk or have a workout while mulling over the project, then plow through the typing in another couple of hours. A full work day – including 8 hours of attention to my work. Only four hours sitting behind the screen.

    Why is knowledge work measured like hourly manual labor?

    Barbara Saunders wrote on November 12th, 2011
    • I agree with your comments completely. I used to work for a major computer company as a research engineer/scientist. Now I’m doing exactly the same thing working for myself. These days I take a long walk at lunch time and that is often my most productive period of the day. In fact I would say that many, perhaps even most, of my best ideas have been had away from my desk. Yet, if I’d tried that where I used to work I’d have been afraid of being “caught”.

      Rob wrote on March 10th, 2012
  3. I have a laptop for work use, and hung one work surface in my cubicle at stand-up height. That doesn’t cost so I didn’t need approval. I work there most of the day. When I’m stuck on the phone I use a headset and toss around a medicine ball or do knee bends.

    Kathy wrote on June 17th, 2012

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