June 21 2011

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

By Mark Sisson
115 Comments

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!

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115 thoughts on “The Art of Work: Avoiding the Pitfalls of a Sedentary Job”

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  1. My husband switched jobs roughly one year ago. He went from working on his feet all day as an automotive technician to driving all over the state to service air compressors. The weight he’d maintained for several years jumped up suddenly by about 5 or 6 pounds. Coincidence?? I think not.

  2. I walk on both of my breaks at work for added axercise but am now thinking about getting one of those portable pedaling exercisers for more added movement benefits. My office does not like the idea of standing workstations so the pedaller would be a benefit.

    1. I ordered one immediately after reading this! Pedaler on the way 🙂

    2. well, guess I should drag mine out from under my desk & dust it off 🙁
      The *real* trick is to pedal while sitting on a balance ball!

      1. oh my gosh, is that even possible? that’s freaking…unicycling! Wow, I’ve gotta try that as a WOD, every day, till I master it!

        1. I just have a cheap-o set of pedals I think I got off of Amazon for like 25 bucks or so. Has a little knob to adjust “resistance”. It’s quite the feat to pedal, type, & balance on the ball w/o bashing your knees on the desk 😀

    3. I do not understand workplaces that are against standing workstations. Increasing evidence is demonstrating that it decreases incidence of repetitive strain injuries. I know my back hurts much less now that I am standing all day (doing “back-breaking work” as a therapist) versus when I sat all day in an outpatient hand-therapy clinic.

    4. I’d seen those and been wondering how much they would really add. Now I’m going to get one right now, for sure. My office culture is great about getting up and walking around, not so great about the standing desk idea.

  3. Often when asked, friends of mine will share that they would LOVE to do some manual labor for a portion of the day rather than just sit at a desk all the time. Most of them aren’t quite ready to take on yoga in their work clothes while they wait for a meeting to start though! I suspect many on this site would be willing to give it a go though! 🙂

    1. I often volunteer to go on the dunks run for my coworkers, eventhough I don’t get anything. Just like to get out for a walk as often throughout the day as possible.

      Also, this post finally tipped the scale, convincing to officially request a standing desk at the office. Fingers crossed.

  4. Mark,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now and this post couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time! I have just been put in charge of creating a wellness program of sorts for my fellow employees at a small consulting firm. I would be interested to hear any suggestions you have for getting the ball rolling for workplace wellness programs for small companies (6-12 employees).

    Thanks!

    1. This is a timely post as my company just started a little walking competition. They gave us each a pedometer and put us on teams. We have a goal that we need to reach in total miles by a certain date. So everyone walks and records their steps on Sharepoint. The top 3 teams will win prizes. Everyone really wants to win and we have all been trying to fit in ways to walk as much as possible – like taking the stairs instead of elevator, parking farther away, and walking on breaks.

  5. i do 6-8 sprints to grab my coffee in the morning…play hack sack or just walk around…most of the time skip the lunch only have a breakfast and a cup of coffee. sometimes snack on a cucumber and some fruit…during the work i move around…squat when pickup things.also keep focus on my posture…every hour take 10-15 min walk. 10-15 min walk at least half an hour before i take off and sit in the traffic…after work allways do something..basketball..climbing..walking or a mix of all.empty stomach..dinner around 9 or 9:30 pm..veggies and a little meat..sleep at 10:30 am ..wake up at 6:00 am..and do it again…

  6. I set up a relatively crude, but effective standing desk at home. Now, if I could just do the same at work. It’s not pretty, but it feels great (I do a lot of keyboarding.)

    You can read more about it: http://www.jimdunkerley.com/my-stand-desk-less-sitting/.

    Also, at the day job, I set a timer to go off every 45 minutes, then I go for a walk or take a few flights of stairs to break things up.

    Jim

  7. There are lots of exercises that can be done in a chair that take only moments to do: toe raises, heel raises, hip tilts, leg lifts, etc. These don’t even require you take your mind off what you are working on. Fidgeting has been proven to help lose weight but you can actually turn your fidgeting into a tone-up program if you choose to do so.

    1. I do fidget a lot. But mostly because my chair is so uncomfortable.

  8. This is way I love my jon as a stay at home mom. Not much time to sit around, being pregnant and taking care of two boys I am up and down and all around all day!!

  9. Lucky to have always had work that called for moderate to hard excercise. Lucky, too, to have been able to keep at it, except for a few glitches over the last four decades.

  10. I’ve played with the standing desk in the past, and I enjoyed it at the time – but I’ve gone back to the more traditional desk in recent years. However, I do focus a lot on getting up (if you’re drinking the amount of water that you should every day, there should be some biological imperative to do so :)) and walking around a bit. Not only is it a good way to get a little fresh air, gather thoughts, and gain clarity on problems I’m working on solving. And it also goes a long way to help mitigate siloing, too.

  11. As a trainer, this doesn’t really affect me all that much, as I move around alot during the day, and have 3-4 hours to workout if I want it. My clients however almost exclusively work desk jobs. One thing I always reccomend is to bring a physio ball to the office and sit on that instead of a chair. The ball forces you to use you core stabilization muscles to keep from falling of the ball while working, and during breaks there is and almost unlimited amount of exercises you can do with said ball. If you boss will let you do this, I have seen great results. Plus, at $9 at my local dicks, its extremely affordable.

    1. Make sure to get a burst resistant ball. I used to sit on one at my former job, and it popped underneath me, which was both funny and very painful at the same time.

    2. I looooooooooooove my ball. When I pause to think or talk to someone, I wiggle around on it to stretch my hips and play around with balancing.

      I also have a kneeling chair, so when I find myself getting tired of the ball I switch to that, and vice-versa.

    3. I second this suggestion! I’ve been using a stability ball instead of a chair for the last three weeks, and I’ve noticed my core and back getting stronger each week. Now, I don’t get fatigued until the end of the day (whereas when I started, I was sore by 10am!).

      Also, I do all kinds of stretches and exercises, keeping my spine and hips in motion. I have soooo much less tension in my upper back, shoulders, lower back, and hip flexors. It’s wonderful.

      Plus, it’s not nearly as difficult to arrange (or as conspicuous) as a standing workstation.

    4. Another component to all this that is so often overlooked is that the more you use your body, the more you get to know it and the sooner you recognize when something is “off” and can ward off something that could get serious. As a massage therapist, I see this all the time. It’s the active clients that know when something’s up and get help sooner. My inactive clients have much less connection with what’s going on in their bodies. They have less capacity to describe any discomfort they have – if they are aware of it – and less awareness of change.

    5. I’ve seen a lot of people with these exercise balls and good to know people have had good results! Think I will try this tip.

  12. I believe there is a definite correlation. When I was teaching and working retail, I always weighed about 10 pounds less than I do now. I wear heels and dresses or skirts to work in the summer time, and I spend a lot of time working at my desk or sitting in meetings. Due to my clothing, I can’t exactly sprint up and down the stairwells at work.

    I have started getting up and walking away from my desk for a minute or so, but I haven’t seen any measurable results from these small efforts yet.

    I know a big part of the puzzle for me is my sedentary work lifestyle. I think adding extra slow movement on a daily basis is the key for me. Wonder if a pedal machine would fit under my desk.

    1. I understand about the heels. I wound up ditching mine (they hurt my feet anyway) and I wear ballet flats all the time now. We are lucky that our office building is on a nice quiet street with a sidewalk and I wanted to be able to get up from my desk and go walk. I think the flats still look cute with a skirt. 🙂

      1. Try the Vibram Five Finger Classic in all black. They work great with slacks and no one noticed for 3 weeks that I was wearing them.

        1. I did this last summer at my office!! I figured that the classics would go relatively unnoticed in black. My boss now refers to me as ‘feet’ because of my collection of black Vibrams that I often wear around the office haha

      2. Ooh, love the idea of ballet slippers. Is there a certain brand that you like? Where can I buy them?

        1. I use that term to describe just flats, I like the kind with a rounded toe, no heel or very very small heel. I’ve bought them at the typical shoe stores in the mall, like Nine West or department stores. If you do a google search on ballet flats you will see examples of what I mean. 🙂

  13. I think about this a lot. As a Project Manager my job means sitting at the computer, sitting in meetings, or sitting on the phone. Thankfully, I’m a self-employed contractor so when not in meetings I control my time so will often go to the gym for a quick 15 to 30 minute workout during the day. Still there are days when it’s hard to even squeeze that in.

  14. Nice one, Mark! My back pain has basically disappeared since you started these posts on strengthening posture and the effects of sedentary lifestyles.

  15. Fortunately my job as a scientist is more labor-intensive than most others, although I still spend about half my time in a cube. Hoping that we’ll get adjustable desks eventually here!

  16. The portable pedal exercisers sound interesting — can anyone recommend a brand?

  17. I walk on both of my 15 minute breaks and on my 30 minute lunch break. That’s about 3-4 miles I get in during my work day. But I’ll be honest, I hate my desk job and get up bright and early to exercise before work so I feel less bad about sitting. I also avoid work “goodie days” and bring a Big Ass Salad for lunch everyday!!! I have made it a goal to find a less sedentary job….Mark any ideas? 🙂

  18. Right now I am typing this in my standing workstation at work, where I spend easily 3-4 hours a day, the rest is in my “chair” : the 75cm stability ball. I am lucky I have a gym at work and during the work day I snick to the gym and do stretches, foam roller passes, the works. Can’t complain!

  19. Sure sitting down a lot has something to do with it, but really, diet is the main culprit. If people ate better they would more instinctively get up and down out of their chair more often. I sit down for work too but I get up and down all the time – to go to the bathroom, get some tea, look around for something or other. If I eat like crap, however, and feel like crap, I am much more glued to my chair.

    1. In my office, though, whenever I got up I frequently would instinctively make a bee-line for the snack table. I got to associate getting up and moving around with going to get some junk food. Now that ive stopped eating it, I have to find new excuses to get up and move around 😉

    2. i agree. i think this is another “correlation is not causation” situation. a lot of people used to do sitting work in the past, but did not become obese.

      has everyone here read Stephan Guyenet’s discussion on food-reward…?

    3. I think that’s true. The conventional paradigm is that we get energy when we eat food, but it depends on WHAT we eat. While all calories are potentially energy, our bodies either store that food energy as fat or release it from fat stores (depending on our insulin levels.) People who are gaining weight are–like those in a state of starvation–lacking energy…because their calories are being locked up as fat rather than being burned. I believe I move a lot because I burning fat, and I am more sluggish when I eat carbs and my body goes into “lock up those calories” mode.

  20. I’ve had some jobs where you were not allowed to sit down all day. That was infinitely worse than being expected to sit all day. At least you are ALLOWED to stand up and walk around every once in a while. STanding on concrete all day is horrible. My back hurt a lot.

    The healthiest job I’ve ever had was when I was self-employed as a farmer and weaver. I didn’t make much money, but I was not at all fat. I moved all day long. It was before computers, and I didn’t have a tv.

  21. My job just moved to a new building and as the cubicles were being put together, I requested a standing work station. I didn’t need to order any new furniture. A shelf was attached to my cube and a keyboard holder/mouse pad was installed on the shelf. It’s perfect and I love it! It’s also a great talking piece since most people can see my head when they walk through. I don’t usually sit much at work (I work in a lab) but I love that I now never sit except for lunch.

  22. I work as a waitress, walking, bending, crouching, and lifting my whole shift. I have witnessed what happens to fellow servers when they transition into career jobs (in an office, where they sit on butt all day long in a cubicle). Let me tell you, it isn’t pretty.

  23. I am standing more and more at work and I think it is helping me quite a bit. I have a question that I hope some of you can help me with: I run a small trucking company and my drivers sit for 10 hrs. per day. They eat the most awful food and their sleep habits are also bad. I drove for 20 yrs. and it took a toll on my health. Give me some ideas that will help my drivers.

    1. The cabins in trucks need to be fitted with seats that can go from sitting to a reclining standing position. Just being up on their feet and shifting their weight from foot to foot for an hour will make a difference. But these modifications will be expensive, with gas controls added to the steering column and other devices that can help to free the feet. Just an idea. Something I’ve thought about on long road trips when I was longing to stand while driving.

    2. Not having personal experience in the industry I don’t have any ideas except ask the drivers. Maybe create a incentive for ideas that turn into changes. They’d be more apt to come up with ideas if there was a tangible reward and more apt to make the changes if the idea came from their ranks. Also the more they see you do the more the collective mindset will shift.

      1. Thanks Susan, I’ll work on some incentives for them and see how that goes. I started eating primal about 2 months ago and have dropped about 20 lb. I feel much better and have a lot more energy. I try to stand at my computer most of the day and I walk around the office while talking on the phone. I haven’t had a pair of shoes on in 3 days. My family is beginning to think I’ve lost it but thats ok. My son is slowly starting to eat more primal and if he begins to loose weight I think that will be a big incentive for the other drivers because they see him weekly.

  24. There has to be a whole culture change before companies see the necessity of workplace fitness. I used to think having a ‘desk’ career was the ultimate but now that I’m on this new quest for fitness it’s cumbersome. I’m constantly seeking new ways to move but that only goes so far. My co-workers probably think I have ADD with as many times as I’m getting up. Fitness as work is still not the norm and in some ‘silent’ respect it’s looked down upon if it gets in the way of work.

    1. It is difficult to get over the feeling of other people judging you. I don’t have much reason to get up from my desk. I’m not a big coffee or tea drinker and I don’t eat from the vending machine so I have no reason to go into the breakroom so much. But if I do go in there and just stand there and watch some TV I feel like people will just think I’m a slacker. I could wander the halls but I’m afraid people would think I’m wierd.

      1. There’s always water; two pitchers a day gives me lots of reasons to stretch my legs.

        If you want to wander the halls, make sure you’re holding a notebook and pen and walking with a brisk step. Nobody will think you are weird. In fact, you may get a promotion…

        1. Haha…I tried that and I was told to stop moving around and stay at my desk.
          Main problem was I was the only female in a building of 30 males and I’m not at all fugly…if ya get my hint.

          I went from a sales person that had to deal with customers and being on my feet 6-8 hours a day to a desk job, not being allowed to walk around. I gained 20 lbs in 1 year…and finally quit.
          I, too, thought having a desk job was the ultimate goal in having a career. Always thought desk jobs were so glorious and important…bah was I wrong.

        2. Haha! Perhaps this ploy would have been more successful had you put your hair in a bun and worn horn-rimmed glasses. Then again, as the only woman among 30 men, the odds were against you from the start. Much better to be the only man among 30 women. Funny how that works.

          But good for you, ditching a job that left you twenty pounds heavier in just one year (!). Mortgaging your health for a little more money is short-sighted at best. I hope your current vocation keeps your hamstrings extended.

  25. I worked at a zoo for a year for an internship. Now I work at a desk as a science writer. I find myself LONGING for the days when I would spend an entire afternoon raking, hosing, and sweeping the zebra barn.

    I try to get up and move around as much as I can, though. I take walks around the office park, sometimes twice a day. I also have a group of friends at work who sometimes get together to go on a short jog/run over lunch.

    Some of the older (and, not gonna lie, much heavier) employees look at me weird when Im walking out of the building in my running clothes, or taking the time to do some yoga stretches by my desk, but guess who’s not hobbling on her way out to the car every day?

    1. That weird look you get from the sedentary employees might reflect inspiration more than opprobrium. They might not rush out to get their own pair of vibrams, but you are definitely planting the seed in their minds that there are other things to do at lunch besides eating.

      Living primally, while remaining humble yet unapologetic, is perhaps the best way to share the message with those who need to hear it.

  26. I made a promise to myself when I was ten years old and saw fat people everywhere that I would never accept a job where I sit down all day. I went from working in food service to being a spray finisher to roaming the halls of the hospital as a phlebotomist. And if they offered me a management position, I’d have to explain to them that I cannot and will not sit on the job. Being active and moving my body keeps me sane. When I sit at a desk too long, I actually start to feel crazy. I have no choice but to keep moving. Now I’m going to the park to pick some wild berries. Bye!

  27. One of the major Danish newspaper has a series of “lunch break fitness” routines specialized for work places. They are made by a personal and much approved personal trainer. I know the videos are in Danish but hopefully it’s possible to play them outside Dk as well. Maybe some will find them usefull to watch to get new ideas on how to combat that sore back and neck from sitting all day?

    http://politiken.tv/tjek_dk/guider/Frokostfitness/

    There are several more on the right column all starting with the name “frokostfitness”

  28. I respect all this thinking on standing desks and the sedentry workplace, but I also think us Primalists are exempt to a certain degree. Most of the evils of the office have been linked to obesity, and that is not a problem for me on Primal. So what is the issue? Is the office a problem for those who are not obese? Hell yes! My feeling is that there is a lot more to it than just the weight issue. Just sitting still over long periods is not healthy neurologically, and then there is the unnatural office environment to consider. I know offices are bad for us, but the research seems to be a bit one eyed currently – or have I missed the other stuff?

    1. Right. It’s more than just the issue of weight, although a lot of the reports lean towards that since people care more about that than their health (or so it seems).
      I am lucky enough to work from home full-time. I built my own tread desk for less than $200. $100 for the desk and $75 for a treadmill off of craigslist. Works well so far. 🙂

  29. This article rings true for me, an office worker for over 20 years. Just wanted to add that the issues associated with desking it for 8 hrs/day seem to go up exponentially with age. Gotta make that effort to stay active, especially after dinner.

  30. Looking back to all my time working in an office in New York (which, thankfully, is in the past), I wish I’d had two things then that I have now: 1) a standing desk; and 2) a bike mounted on a trainer, next to my bed, for riding right when I get up (so work outs get done before anything else, regardless of weather, with no gym travel time). Weights and stability ball are key too. 🙂

  31. Great article. I took Mark’s advice some months ago regarding a standing workstation and cannot believe the difference it makes. I’m of the school of thought to act first and ask for forgiveness after, rather than asking for permission and being denied. I just got together some boxes etc and built my own standing workstation.
    Go for a walk every hour as well, just a couple of minutes and try to get outside. You won’t know yourself after a couple of weeks!

  32. My company just purchased a treadmill with hydraulic desk and computer attached. Unfortunately, we’re waiting for them to write a ‘usage policy’ before we can use it!

    In the meantime, I get up from my desk to go to the water cooler, deliver mail, talk to people instead of emailing, etc.

    I also sneak off a couple of times a day to do a few wall pushups and squats in a quiet office as well as doing a 20-30 minute walk on my lunch hour – outside in nice weather, in the parking garage in poor weather.

  33. I remember my co-workers used to think I was so weird when I’d get up every hour ‘to go the bathroom’ (my excuse) and then go *upstairs* (shock horror!) to use the bathroom. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t just wait until my break and use the bathroom on the same floor. Your health is more important than fitting in – and why would you want to fit in with unhealthy people anyway? You can be a really good example by being ‘that guy or gal’, as Mark says.

  34. Love this, Mark. Interesting note: I went to an education conference this spring and one of the sessions was on teaching BOYS. Suggestion #1: get them a desk they can stand at. Don’t make them sit! They hate it, and it’s bad for their mental function.

    The session was about educating boys, but it sounds like we’d all be better off with more standing and less sitting.

  35. I just found out today that all my nagging of our facilities person is getting me a newly raised desk!!! This is significant since NO ONE else I work with has one and I work for a major corporation (+70k employees).

    How did I do this? Well, when I first asked for it, they thought I wanted to just elevate my keyboard and monitor. Ummm no. Granted, I am an engineer and I do work on my computer a LOT, I do have to look over prints and specifications from time to time, which requires a work surface. To raise the work surface they thought they had to get some specialized support legs to fit our cubicle structure. Ummmm no. I suggested that they just mount my desk higher up on the cubicle wall [duh], trade my current desk chair in for a taller chair in case I need to sit for a few minutes, and save themselves a WHOLE LOT over the crazy equipment they were looking at.

    For the cost of a new chair [~$100-$150] I get what I want and they get an even healthier employee. This is much better than the ~$1500 specialized leg do-hicky they said I needed.

    So start sending those emails to your facilities/healthy person asking for better office equipment – include links to every study that Mark has [and others]. It’s your health…you deserve the best!

  36. Most buildings have at least one flight of stairs, when I was feeling antsy I’d do a couple laps up and down a few flights and just that little bit of movement really got my blood flowing and my head feeling clearer.

  37. My team is positive that their Manager is insane.

    Sprints between buildings. Chair dips and push-ups in my office. Giant Chef salads loaded with meat for lunch.

    They continue to eat their lean cuisines and spend break time on the internet. Then wonder why they haven’t gotten leaner or fitter.

  38. Where there’s a will, there’s a way: back when I worked in an office in the 1990’s (YES! they actually had offices way back then!) I would just kick off my high heels, move the office chair out of my way and just stand at the desk to do whatever I had to do. Being short of stature (5’2″) it was easier for me to do that than someone who is a lot taller so I didn’t have any trouble working at the desk while standing.

    I had to dress up as I had a high profile job and needed to meet clients/sales people, etc., but my high heels were off every chance I got. And I got out of the office to walk around every chance I got by keeping a pair of flats under the desk. High heels suck.

    I wasn’t in a cubicle, but had a regular office with a small conference table. When it was time to gather ’round the conference table to review plans/specs, I made sure there wasn’t a chair in sight. So we’d all stand around the table and hold our meetings that way. The conference table did have height-adjustable legs so I had the maintenance guys raise the table height some so it would be comfortable for the taller folks (meaning everyone else in the room).

    I’d get some snickers once in a while or someone dragging in their own office chair, which I let them do. But when they got guff from the guys who were standing, they usually gave up the idea of sitting and next time these same people wouldn’t bring a chair!

    Also I found that while standing instead of sitting for a meeting, there’s an feeling of “hey, this might not take so long after all.” Instead of dragging on and on, meetings ended a lot faster — another bonus!

    Point being, sometimes it’s easier than you think to adjust your work space to suit your needs – don’t ask if it’s OK, just do it. Stack your laptop (securely, please!) on top of some books or catalogs, use a small side table that’s higher than your desk and stand at it — that sort of thing. My best friends at work were always the maintenance guys so whenever I needed something moved around or something “adjusted” they were right there to help.

    1. That’s how I just made my standing desk at work. I brought in a few white platforms from Ikea, raised up my keyboard and monitor, and then asked my team if it was okay (and let my cubicle neighbors know I wouldn’t be staring into their spaces). The main attitude is “weird, but whatever floats your boat.” Luckily there are a couple of other folks doing it on my floor, too, which I discovered after setting up my own 🙂

      It might have bothered people more if I had asked and had to explain at length, rather than just doing it so people could see it’s not really a big deal.

      I also guard a small fileroom where I can hide and do yoga during breaks. 🙂

  39. 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!

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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!

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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:

    http://www.thinkgeek.com/computing/bags/a988/

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

  47. 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!

  48. 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.

  49. 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?

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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!

    1. 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 StandinGoodHealth.com. There is also a facebook page.

  55. 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!

  56. According to Esther Gokhale (https://egwellness.com/) 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.

  57. 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.

  58. 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.

    Why?

    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.

    1. 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.)

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

  59. 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!

  60. 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.

  61. 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 🙂

  62. 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

  63. 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.

  64. 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.

  65. 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

  66. 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!

  67. 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!

    Cheers!
    J.

  68. 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/

  69. 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

  70. 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!

  71. 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?

    1. 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”.

  72. 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.