For those of us with desk jobs, it was a big bummer to learn that sitting on our bums for hours on end can increase our mortality risk—even if we get regular exercise!—according to a recent article in Current Opinion in Cardiology. What’s more, research has shown that the extreme dangers of prolonged sitting include an increased risk for cardiovascular disease…colorectal cancer…obesity…diabetes…and potentially deadly blood clots in the lungs.
Given that more than 80% of jobs in the US are now sedentary (compared with just 50% five decades ago), day-in-day-out sitting represents a huge and growing health problem. But there is good news—because breaking up sedentary time with spurts of activity has been shown to help offset the health risks of sitting. So, even when we’re stuck at the office, we can protect ourselves with some creative get-up-and-go strategies and a few nifty gadgets sold at sporting-goods stores and/or online.
For specifics, I consulted two renowned exercise experts and research collaborators, James A. Levine, MD, PhD, a Mayo Clinic professor in Rochester, Minnesota, and coauthor of Move a Little, Lose a Lot…and Catrine Tudor-Locke, PhD, professor of kinesiology at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Their suggestions…
Stand up when you can. Using the muscles necessary to stand activates substances that have good effects on how the body uses and stores sugars and fats. Plus, standing burns three times as many calories as sitting, Dr. Levine pointed out.
- Automatically get to your feet whenever a coworker stops by to talk.
- When on the phone, stand and rise up onto your toes, then lower your heels back to the ground…repeat these heel lifts as many times as you can.
- Get an adjustable-height computer workstation. Raise it so you can see the screen and reach your keyboard while standing…lower it when you want to sit down. (Avoid prolonged standing if you have back problems, Dr. Tudor-Locke cautioned.)
Step on it. “Standing is better than sitting, but walking is even better than standing,” said Dr. Levine.
- Walk fast to the restroom (and take the stairs to one on a different floor), then do an extra lap around the office before heading back to your desk. Helpful: Drink plenty of water throughout the day, Dr. Tudor-Locke suggested—this forces you to take more frequent bathroom breaks (as well as promoting good hydration).
- Rather than meeting with a colleague or two in your office or a conference room, have a “walking meeting” in the corridor.
- If you have enough space and the whir of a machine won’t bother coworkers, try a treadmill desk (a treadmill with a flat surface at the front). You don’t have to use it all day or even go fast—walking for one hour at a leisurely pace burns 100 to 200 calories more than sitting for the same period of time, Dr. Levine said. Or use a mini-stepper—a small device with two footpads that lets you step in place against resistance—when standing at your adjustable-height workstation.
When you must sit, move some muscles. “You’re not trying to ‘feel the burn’ with an intense workout—the idea is just to move as much as you can,” said Dr. Tudor-Locke.
- Sit on a stability ball (a large inflatable plastic ball). The continuous tiny adjustments necessary to stay upright on the ball will engage many more muscles (especially the abs, back and pelvis) than sitting on a chair, Dr. Levine noted. An average-height woman needs a 21-inch-diameter ball…use a 17-inch ball if you are shorter than five feet…use a 25-inch ball if taller than five feet, seven inches.
- When waiting for a report to print, do some seated biceps curls or shoulder presses with five-pound hand weights. Or use a resistance band (a three-foot-long strip of latex) for some seated chest presses or triceps toners.
- March in place as you read your e-mail, raising your knees as high as you can without hitting the underside of your desk.
- Put a portable mini-cycle (a diminutive version of a stationary bicycle) beneath your desk and pedal while you work.
Helpful: Encourage your coworkers—especially your boss—to join in your “deskercise” movement. Dr. Levine said, “If workday physical activities are frowned upon or laughed at, they fail quickly. But when everyone is into them, you get a sense of merriment in the workplace—and then people are quite happy to get moving.”