Can you guess one reason why the obesity rate in the United States has doubled over the past 35 years? If you said, “desk jobs”—you’re right. Obesity experts cite the severe decline in physical activity during the workday as one of the primary reasons 36.5 percent of U.S. adults are obese.
Not only is our workday sedentary, many of us have long commutes to the office. Would it surprise you to learn that the typical American commuter spends nearly the equivalent of a 40-hour workweek in traffic every year? A 2012 study found that greater commuting distances are associated with “decreased cardiorespiratory fitness, increased weight, and other indicators of metabolic risk.”
Combine this with our unlimited TV options, video games, and increasingly web-centric lifestyle, and it’s easy to see why many of us spend most of our lives sitting. When the large muscle groups in your legs and back are inactive during long periods of uninterrupted sitting, you put yourself at risk for a number of health problems:
- A slowed metabolism that leads to excess weight and obesity.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Abnormal cholesterol and triglycerides levels.
- High blood sugar and Type 2 diabetes.
- Increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
- Increased risk for certain cancers.
- Muscle degeneration.
So what’s a mostly sedentary professional to do in order to safeguard herself against the effects of a workplace that encourages inertia?
Just a few minutes of movement every hour
You might think that the hour-long walk or run you take after dinner makes up for all that sitting, but studies show this is not the case. Even regular vigorous exercise can’t offset the health risks caused by hours of sitting.
The Mayo Clinic’s James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., originator of the term “sitting is the new smoking” and treadmill desk inventor, explains that the muscle activity you use just to stand up “seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body.”
Try these easy at-work tweaks:
- Use a standing desk, or improvise with a high table or counter.
- Stand while talking on the phone, eating lunch, or having meetings.
- Sit on an exercise ball instead of your desk chair to strengthen your core, improve balance and flexibility, and burn more calories.
- Walk whenever you can. Reply to your colleagues’ emails in person. Conduct walking meetings. Enlist a partner for daily walks at lunch. Park far away from the building. Always take the stairs.
- Perform calf raises while waiting for copies.
Workplace fitness equipment
If you prefer something more high tech, you’ll find numerous exercise gadgets designed to help busy professionals stay in motion during office hours.
- The Cubii under-desk elliptical trainer lets you move your legs discreetly while tracking your progress on a mobile app.
- A mini exercise bike lets you talk on the phone and peddle away. Place the bike on a tabletop, and work your arms and shoulders.
- Use small hand weights or resistance bands to perform gentle stretching.
- Slip on ankle weights for under-desk leg lifts.
- Program a fitness tracker or smart watch to buzz when you’ve been inactive for 55 minutes.
Hydration and nutrition
Drinking enough water at work aids weight loss, staves off hunger, and gives you another reason to get up and walk to the bathroom. Bring your own bottle, and keep it refilled throughout your day.
Pack nutritious snacks to help you resist high-fat, sugar-laden office treats. Opt for raw nuts, fresh fruits, protein bars, and string cheese to keep your blood sugar stable and your energy high.
Remember: staying healthy and fit at work can be as simple as taking a minute-long break every hour. Incorporating short bursts of physical activity during mini breaks makes a significant difference and can help lower your blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol, and waist size.