I’ve been feeling self-conscious since doing research on the health effects of sedentary jobs for an article we published in the fall edition of WorkCare’s quarterly newsletter, Vitality Atlas.
It’s discouraging to be reminded it takes more than a lifelong commitment to exercise to compensate for a career that weds me to a keyboard and monitor.
I’ve followed a consistent fitness routine throughout my adult life. I am a gym class regular and walk all over town. But I typically spend most of the workweek at a desk. Sometimes I get into a zone and sit for hours without taking a break.
During a recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health webinar, I learned there is limited longitudinal research on health benefits and potential safety risks associated with active workstations. However, most of the expert NIOSH panelists said they use either a sit-stand or treadmill workstation on a relatively consistent basis. In addition to sustaining core fitness, they said sound ergonomic practices should be part of the comprehensive solution.
While I haven’t set up an active workstation in my office (I telecommute), I’m fortunate to live where a conducive climate allows me to go outside and walk around the block.
As an occupational health professional who is deeply interested in how work environment affects the health and well-being of employees, I know I can do more, for instance, change the chair height; periodically correct my posture; get up and stretch; re-adjust my gaze; drink more water and avoid unhealthy snacks; and use a cordless headset to walk or stand while conversing.
While minor gains from changes like these may be difficult to measure, collectively they contribute to activity, and in turn, good health.
Why is it so important to pay attention to the health effects of sedentary work? Here are just a few reasons:
- Physical inactivity is linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as increased stress levels and risk of injury or illness due to de-conditioning. According to the American Heart Association, walking at least 30 minutes a day (10,000 steps) helps reduce these risks.
- Experts say sedentary workers need rigorous exercise to improve muscle symmetry, coordination, timing and control. Dynamic, functional fitness exercises train muscles to work efficiently and decrease injury risk.
- Last year, Career Builder sponsored a survey of 2,095 people with desk jobs and 1,102 workers with non-desk jobs. Among the findings: 46 percent reported gaining weight since taking a desk job, compared to 30 percent of non-desk job workers. A majority of employees in both categories (58 percent and 51 percent, respectively) reported being overweight.
- In a 2015 Career Builder survey of 3,000 American workers, 57 percent reported they were overweight (up from 55 percent in 2014). Of those, 56 percent said “sitting at the desk most of the day” was the leading contributor to weight gain, compared to 43 percent who said they are “too tried from work to exercise” and 37 percent of who said they were “eating because of stress.” In the same survey, among 27 percent of respondents with access to employer-sponsored wellness benefits, including onsite workout facilities and gym passes, 63 percent did not take advantage of them.
It is generally believed that frequent “micro-breaks” can help sedentary workers reduce injury risk and improve concentration. Other low-tech suggestions include getting a drink of water in the break room or delivering a message to a colleague in person, standing at meetings or while on the phone, walking with a buddy (peer pressure helps) at lunchtime and using a pedometer.
During the fall occupational health and safety conference season, I walked with a number of people who keep track of their daily steps. One woman told me she walked in place in her hotel room to hit the magic 10,000-steps-a-day goal before going to sleep.
If you need an activity reminder, try setting a timer. There goes mine now! Work day’s over and I’m headed to the gym.
Karen O’Hara is WorkCare’s Director of Marketing and Communications.