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Workplace Exercise: How This Can Increase Your Health

Picture this.  You’ve worked for years at a job that requires a modest amount of physical exertion—working the factory floor, running the mailroom at the office, serving as a nurse’s aide, bussing the tables at the local deli.  Now that you’ve proven your worth to your organization you find yourself being promoted to a job in management with all the perks of your new station.  You get to manage expectations, enjoy the daily gossip at the water cooler, and leave the office not needing to fumigate your clothing from the day’s labor.  Along with your new job comes a cubicle, a computer, and a chair.

As the months of your new employment stretch on, you come upon a startling discovery: your chair is steadily getting smaller.  How does this happen?  Are your new co-workers playing tricks on you?  If it’s those ne’er-do-wells down in marketing (the same schmucks who spiked the punchbowl with methylene blue at the last holiday mixer), how is it that they can sneak into your bedroom closet and replace your pants with sizes that don’t fit?

Nope.  Sad to say, it’s your rump that’s doing the expanding.  Those extra calories you used to burn running up and down the stairs and navigating the factory floor are taking up permanent residence on your gluteals.  Sure, the clothes are a problem and that Herman Miller Aeron now constrains you like a Victorian corset.  But that’s not the real issue.  The whole time you are exercising your fingers on your computer keyboard your heart is slipping into a more drastic state of decay.

Sedentary Lifestyle in the Workplace

Consider a study published in 2010 that assessed the impact that prolonged sitting has on the risk of cardiovascular death.  Cited in a story on NPR, the lead author, Dr. Steven Blair of the University of South Carolina, outlined the basic idea behind his research:

Blair recently headed a study that looked at adult men and their risk of dying from heart disease. He calculated how much time the men spent sitting — in their cars, at their desks, in front of the TV."Those who were sitting more were substantially more likely to die," Blair says.

Specifically, he found that men who reported more than 23 hours a week of sedentary activity had a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than those who reported less than 11 hours a week of sedentary activity. And many of these men routinely exercised. Blair says scientists are just beginning to learn about the risks of a mostly sedentary day.

"If you're sitting, your muscles are not contracting, perhaps except to type. But the big muscles, like in your legs and back, are sitting there pretty quietly," Blair says. And because the major muscles aren't moving, metabolism slows down.

As if there aren’t enough bad things in this world that your doctors complain about, now the simple act of sitting is on the no-no list.  And Dr. Blair’s research isn’t alone in its findings—there now exists a whole body of knowledge about the dangerous effects of spending hours seated in a car, office chair, or La-Z-Boy.

Ways to Increase Exercise at Work

A quick search on the internet will lead you to dozens of articles about what you can do to increase your level of activity at work.  Most of the suggestions offered don’t exactly fall into the category of what I’d call exercise, but anything you can do that is not sitting at your computer playing solitaire is probably a worthwhile start.  Here’s my short list of suggestions to think about:

Many Workplaces Now Offer Incentives For Health

Let money be your motivation.

Many larger businesses offer some type of cash incentive to entice you into a healthier lifestyle.  The LA Times reported last year, for example, that American Express actually paid their employees to walk two and a half miles a day.  At CHI Health, we can score points with exercise, diet, and favorable health parameters that go to cutting the amount we need to pay into our health insurance premiums.  Your business might offer the same type of program.

Exercise In and Around the Office

Use the gym at work.

I am surprised to hear how many corporations have now built gyms into their office space.  Here in Omaha many of our leading businesses have fully outfitted gyms on their property and encourage their employees to use them.  Many of those who haven’t gone that far in remodeling often have agreements with local gyms for a lower membership rate.  Try working out over the lunch hour or before/after work.  Always keep a gym bag in the trunk of your car in case the opportunity arises.

Attack the stairs.

Most office buildings have at least one set of stairs; most have more.  Try organizing a stair-walking club where you and others make it a habit to walk from the bottom floor to the top a couple of times a day.  In an effort to research the subject of work-place fitness, I set out to discover how much stair exercise I could get done in a relatively short period.  Five minutes and 18 flights of stairs later I was doubled over, straining for air, my legs burning in agony.  The next day I could barely walk.  My advice?  Start slowly and keep it up.

Walk the neighborhood.

Here’s one of my favorites.  When the weather’s nice here in Omaha (if you’re wondering which days those are let me know and I’ll gladly post the short list) I like to steal away in the middle of the day for a walk through the neighborhoods around my hospital.  This may not work for those of you with jobs where you need a security escort and Kevlar vest to walk in from the parking lot, but if the area’s favorable you’ll experience an enjoyable break that will reinvigorate both your body and mind.

Don't Forget Healthy Nutrition

Pack lunch from home.

Eating at the office cafeteria can be treacherous, and I’m not just talking about mystery-meat Mondays.  It’s often easier to choose high-calorie, unhealthful entrees when you’re blind to the ingredients that went into them.  Bringing a lunch from home isn’t so cool (unless you have it in a vintage Starsky and Hutch metal lunchbox) but it’s sure to be a whole lot healthier than most of the food available at the office.  It goes without saying that you need to avoid another common office habit: grazing.  Just remember, the fewer unneeded calories you put in your mouth the less frequently you’ll need to move to a bigger size of Lucky jeans.

Socializing During Workplace Exercise

Make friends with healthy people.

I have no research to support this, but the more you associate with active, healthy people, the more likely you are to mimic their behavior.  I take it back—I guess I do have research on this.  A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 demonstrated that people who surround themselves with overweight friends tend to become fat as well.  If just one of your really close friends becomes obese you stand a nearly two-fold increase risk of become heavy yourself.  Why this is the case is not immediately clear.  "You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you," offers the lead researcher, Dr. Nicholas Christakis.  At the other end of the spectrum, I submit, if you hang out among people with healthy exercise habits it’ll rub of on you as well.

Take a cue from the smokers.

Stepping out for a 5-minute “fresh air break” used to be a time-honored tradition among American office workers with a hankering for a nicotine fix.  While I don’t approve of their choice of activity once they’re out near the back loading dock, I do admire their consistency in taking regular breaks from the desk.  Follow their lead, but take a lap around the building instead of a drag on the Marlboros.

Socialize on the go.

Did you ever watch the TV show The West Wing?  The makers of that drama series loved to film segments they termed “walk-and-talks” where their characters would carry on expository dialogue while briskly making their way from room to room.  Try this at work.  If you’re going to gab with the guy in the next cubicle, invite him to walk with you down to the water cooler while you talk.  This makes for a nice way to socialize and get a little extra activity, and you don’t even have to talk about left-wing Democratic politics like Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn did.

You’ll note that I’ve neglected to offer any opinion on the plethora of commercially-available workplace exercise equipment, the variety of pedalers and pumpers you keep under the desk that allow you to burn calories while playing Words with Friends.  The reason I’m ignoring these contraptions is that I’ve never met another human on earth that has ever used one of these on a regular basis.

Good luck with your efforts at staying in shape while keeping up the demands of a cubicle existence.  If living well is the best revenge, then living healthy and trim has got to be the best way to stick it to those overweight, sedentary prankster schmucks down in marketing.

Original post date: March, 2012. Revised: February, 2019.

Eric Van De Graaff, MD
Eric Van De Graaff, MD

Eric Van De Graaff, MD is a Heart & Vascular Specialist at CHI Health Clinic.

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