Does your job keep you glued to your desk all day? Your dedication might get you a promotion, but the sitting and stress that go along with it aren’t great for your health.
We called on Esther Sternberg, MD, of the University of Arizona, a researcher in the area of mind-body well-being and how your environment factors into your health for some advice. Here’s what Dr. Sternberg says every office worker should do to stay healthy and feel better at work and all day long…
See the light. Finding the right lighting in the workplace is a Goldilocks dilemma. Not enough light can lead to eyestrain, headaches and fatigue, while too much light can cause glare, headaches and fatigue. Being exposed to natural light, especially in the morning, is ideal. It helps set your circadian rhythm, which encourages sleep at night and waking up in the morning. If your workspace gets little or no window light, buy a full spectrum light bulb or a light box to replicate bright sunlight. This will not only help keep your body clock set but will also give your poor eyes a break!
Create your happy place. Work isn’t just about the work. What you see and hear in your surroundings can stress you or calm you. Take stock of your work environment and then take steps to improve problem areas. For example, check your view. Not so great? One study found that plants in the workplace make people happy and more productive. If you work in an inner cubicle, try shade-loving greenery or a low-light succulent that won’t mind the lack of direct sunlight. Surround yourself with photographs of your loved ones or your favorite vacation spot—anything that makes you feel good when you look at it. If distracting noise from any source (including constant workplace chatter) is a problem, wear noise-canceling headphones or earbuds to listen to music.
Get comfortable. You spend more of your awake hours at work than anywhere else. So, you know if you aren’t physically comfortable, there will be a physical price to pay. And in fact, musculoskeletal disorders, many caused by or aggravated by poor work ergonomics, account for more than one-third of all lost workdays. What to do: Think of ergonomics as fitting your job to your body. Evaluate your posture and alignment when sitting at your desk and note whether you feel any stress or pain. If you have access to an ergonomic specialist through your employer, take advantage of that job perk for a workstation assessment. If not, Dr. Sternberg offers the following ergonomic pointers:
- The top of your computer monitor should be at eye level. Use a movable platform to raise and lower it or prop it up if you have to.
- If your chair has armrests and you can adjust them, have your elbows resting on the armrests while you are typing. This takes pressure off your wrists and helps keep repetitive strain injury (damage to tendons and muscles from repeating the same actions regularly) at bay.
- Your wrists should be level with the keyboard. Consider a mouse with a tracking ball—it is ergonomic and has a place where you can rest your hand while moving the ball with your thumb. This way you don’t have to move your arm and elbow to move the mouse, Dr. Sternberg explains.
- Your feet should be squarely on the floor in front of you—raise or lower your chair if that’s not the case. Some people feel more comfortable with a footrest—that’s ok too.
Breathe. Sure, you do this all the time, but do you ever do it consciously? Purposely breathing a certain way will initiate your “relaxation response” and will help you refocus, improve your mood and combat job stress. Try this: Breathe in for four to five seconds and then slowly breathe out for about 10 seconds—your exhalation should always be longer than your inhalation. Repeat this just two to three times in a row and you’ll immediately lower your stress response (too many times in a row could lead to hyperventilating, warns Dr. Sternberg). Do it whenever you feel stressed and want to reset.
Move more. Sitting for prolonged periods is associated with higher mortality rates and may be a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and stroke—even for people who exercise at other times. Regularly standing and finding ways to move at regular intervals throughout your day are important to counteract all that sitting.
For office workers, Dr. Sternberg suggests setting an alarm or timer and getting up every 20 to 30 minutes to stretch. That’s the low budget option. Even better: Raise your workstation to standing height by buying a standing desk or an adjustable keyboard/monitor stand that sits on your existing desk. The less you sit, the better for your health.
As a general guideline, aim for 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. And if you’re having a hard time fitting that in, weave exercise into your workday instead. Try…
- Walking or biking to and from work (even partway).
- Walking or going to a nearby gym on your lunch hour.
- Walking the perimeter of your office for a total of at least 20 minutes each day.
- Skipping elevators and taking stairs instead—again, even partway!
Don’t let your office ruin your nutrition. Do you fall victim to break room or vending machine snacks or find that you frequently work through your lunch hour? In both cases, you’re hurting yourself. There’s no magic shortcut—you need to eat better at work if you want to stay healthy. If the only way to have healthful food at work is to bring it from home—do it! And if every week (or nearly every day) brings an office birthday cake, coworker-made cookies or other junk food that’s pushed upon you, either take a walk until the temptation subsides or, if you want to eat something with the group, keep healthy snacks such as nuts or single portions of dark chocolate in your desk. And be sure to stay hydrated because it’s easy to mistake thirst for hunger.