How incorporating activity into our work and daily lives makes us healthier
If our jobs aren’t stressful enough, those of us relegated to our rear ends for most of the workday now have to worry all that sitting is killing us.
“Sitting is the new smoking!” coined Dr. James A Levine, a leading obesity expert and endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic at Arizona State University. The famous physician raised the red flag for everyone from desk workers to long-haul truck drivers and serial Netflix viewers.
Humans are designed to move but it’s been a long time since we had to chase down our next meal or toil physically in order to survive. Simply put, because our modern lives are teeming with technological advancements, we’re drastically less active than our ancestors and we’re paying a price they could never have imagined.
According to the World Health Organization, inactivity is now the fourth-leading risk factor for death worldwide.
But what if our work involves stationary staring at a computer screen? And what about people in wheelchairs?
Thankfully there’s some good news. Recent research suggests it’s not so much sitting but staying still—as in prolonged positioning and lack of activity in general—that is particularly dangerous.
To be sure, too much time on your tush can lead to all kinds of medical maladies, but there are some pretty simple solutions to lighten the load, so to speak.
YOU'VE GOT TO MOVE IT
Dr. Levine likens too much sitting still to a sports car that idles all day long—the engine is going to get “gunked” up. Our bodies kind of seize up too. The metabolic engine goes to sleep and muscles stop moving, heart rate slows, and we burn significantly less calories than when we are walking. Insulin effectiveness drops, putting us at risk for Type 2 diabetes; meanwhile fat and cholesterol levels rise.
Back in 2014, a biomedical engineer named Amit Gefan from Tel Aviv University studied patients with spinal cord injuries forced to remain in prolonged seated positions. Gefan found fat cells under constant pressure experienced accelerated growth of lipid droplets, or fat deposits, concluding static sitting caused fat cells to grow and muscle cells to disappear.
Inactivity for prolonged periods of time carries other risks. Breast and colon cancer also appear to be particularly influenced by inactivity. Then there’s our mental health. We feel lethargic and get depressed if we don’t move enough.
For a while researchers told us we could counter these effects with daily workouts and while there’s truth to this, even a svelte marathoner remains at risk if she sits on her duff most of the day. “It appears that what is critical and maybe even more important than going to the gym, is breaking up sitting time,” Dr. Levine told NBC news.
Such statements gave rise to a rush in stand-up desks, but in 2015 an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine warned, “Any stationary posture where energy expenditure is low may be detrimental to health, be it sitting or standing.”
So what’s the answer?
Experts suggest changing up position frequently throughout our day, in combination with regular bouts of activity, could go a long way toward warding off health hazards. Add moderate to intense exercise (a healthy diet wouldn’t hurt) three times a week, and you’re on your way to winning the war sedentary work is waging on your life.
WHAT CAN A MORTAL WOMAN DO?
Dr. Mary Jung is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Health and Exercise Psychology Lab (HEPL) at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus. Her primary research focus is on the development and testing of novel self-regulatory behavior change strategies to promote health.
“The most common barrier women report to becoming more active is time…there’s never enough…the next biggest thing is that women tend to get down on themselves, saying things like, ‘I know I should do this. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’ It’s really hard to change if you beat yourself up all the time,” Jung says.
Prioritizing is key to fitting in activity. “Unless you’re an elite athlete—and even then, I’d argue family should come first—I don’t want you to list your workout as number one,” Jung explains. “But if you have say a top ten list of priorities, if you can fit it in the top five, that would be great.”
Current Canadian guidelines for women suggest 150 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic exercise a week, in at least ten-minute bouts, as well as two resistance training sessions designed to keep muscles and bones strong.
For women just starting out, this sounds insurmountable. They compare themselves to others and can’t conceive how walking fifteen minutes is going to help them lose fifty pounds.
“We need a societal shift,” Jung acknowledges. “We only see the polished product in the media. We don’t see the hard work it took and the truth is, everyone struggles to exercise.”
It’s baby steps and the first one is the hardest, but it can begin with the idea of incorporating activity into your everyday—starting with work.
“When I first got my walking treadmill desk, I got a lot of looks,” Jung says, “but now four of the six offices along this hallway are on standing desks…. a professor around the corner has 15 pound dumb bells at his desk…we need to get to the point where it’s unacceptable not to have movement in your workday.”
Women may fear the repercussions of getting up too often because it looks better if they’re at their desks. Of course the irony is that we’re more productive if we take mini breaks. “Bosses need to encourage those breaks,” Jung says.
And research backs up her belief. Just last year, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, in cooperation with other institutions, found five-minute walking breaks every hour were more effective at improving well-being than a single half hour session before work.
Published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, the study found workers who rose regularly reported greater happiness, less fatigue, and fewer food cravings. Their feelings of vigor tended to increase throughout the day—significant considering that mid-afternoon crash that sends some of us running for coffee.
“We need reminders to move,” Jung says. She recommends setting an alarm on your phone or computer, using apps that ding; anything that signals it’s time to get going after 55 minutes in a sedentary position.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR MOVE AT WORK?
*“Stair breaks are becoming popular,” Jung says. “Every hour do a flight of stairs to break up sit time. “
*Use the washroom on another floor. Ditto the water cooler.
*If emailing within your building, don’t do it. Try the old fashioned approach of walking over to your colleague’s desk.
*“Try little tricks,” Jung advises. “Every time you visit the washroom, do some jumping jacks or pushups.” It’s amazing how many pushups you might complete by the end of the day and it becomes a healthy habit.
*Wear a headset and walk around when you’re on the phone
*Hold walking meetings
*Use your lunch hour to workout and don’t feel guilty about it. “Women in particular feel they need to account for their time. They feel guilty if they don’t volunteer at work or when they take time away from family,” Jung admits.
But here’s the bottom line: If we get sick, everything we care about could be compromised, including work, our families and friends, and our many other responsibilities.