Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Is My Desk Job Actually Killing Me?

I grew with friends who had parents that were cops and firemen…jobs that truly involve real, palpable danger! Everyone in my family put on suits and headed off to work in some shiny office building – what dangers did they worry about? Maybe the occasional paper cut? True to form that is where I have ended up; sitting in front of a computer behind a desk ALL day long. Now I must admit I have long worried about what staring at a computer screen all day might do to my eyes (I now wear glasses; although most of my family is practically blind so I am grateful I lasted into my 30s before having any issues) and we have all seen coworkers with the wrist braces due to carpal tunnel, but in general I have never been all that worried about how my job may be impacting my health.
However I recently read an article entitled “Why Your Desk Job Is Slowly Killing You.” It seems that for many of us who sit at a computer 8+ hours a day, this can have detrimental effects on our bodies, even if you exercise regularly outside of work. Previously these people were considered “active,” however now we are more accurately characterized as an "exercising couch potato.”1 Really??!! Apparently our bodies are not meant for sitting and that even if they adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle, we decrease our ability to walk, run, jump, etc. Some studies have indicated that it actually shortens our lifespan…..sitting is now up there with other risk factors like smoking, excessive drinking, etc. Maybe I shouldn’t be so grateful to still have my job given this awful economy?? Although without my job, that is apparently killing me, I would likely not be able to afford health insurance or all that oh so healthy organic, hormone-chemical free food that is supposed to be good for me!!
The Harvard Business Review recently published an article calling “Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation.”2 It’s no secret that our poor diet, particularly due to unhealthy addiction to fast and processed foods and a more sedentary lifestyle had led to astronomical obesity rates in this country, along with many other deadly diseases. We all know that we should be moving around a lot more than we do. I get downright antsy at work and by the time I leave the office I don’t even want to think about sitting down again; this often helps rally me for the gym. Even when I am at home I am usually walking around when I am on the phone or standing at my computer. A few months ago I was suffering with horrible neck pain. Now I am sure a lot had to do with work being particularly frustrating and stressful at the time (I like many people carry all my stress in my neck and shoulders), but I am positive sitting hunched over my desk for hours at a time was not helping the situation.
Some interesting (and SCARY) statistics:
2Long periods of sitting slows the metabolism; after just 1 hour of sitting the production of enzymes that burn fat has been shown to decline by as much as 90%. Research shows that this lack of physical activity is directly tied to 6% of the impact for heart disease, 7% for type 2 diabetes and 10% for breast and colon cancer. The death rate associated with obesity in the US is now 35 million - compare that to tobacco which is only 3.5 million! The New York Times reported on a study published in 2011, which found that for each additional hour of TV a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11%. In that same article, a doctor is quoted as saying that excessive sitting, which he defines as nine hours a day, is a lethal activity!!

But what do you do? If your job is in an office, you likely don’t have the luxury of quitting and doing something else. I know I don’t! And with the advent of technology, we don’t even have to use our biceps to pick up the phone and call someone or god forbid walk down the hall to meet with someone in person! I seriously have people at work that I can see across the floor while sitting at my desk, that would rather chat me than get up off their butt to come ask me a question! How many times have I gone to a conference for a meeting, as I love getting away from my desk, to be the only fool sitting there because everyone else dialed in from their desks?
I read a suggestion by James Levine, a well know obesity expert, that people with sedentary jobs should get up for 10 minutes every hour.3 Nice work if you can get it, but most of us don’t have the ability to take a 10 minute break every hour…that’s a significant chunk of productive work time! I’d rather get in, get my work done and go home to do something fun with that 90 minutes! (He also suggests a treadmill desk (which he coincidently invented), but I am not even getting into how unrealistic that idea is!)

Turns out a few simple things can help:
1) Take the stairs rather than the elevator
2) If you can bike or walk to work. Or get off the subway one stop earlier (for you drivers…park your car farther away from the office door)
3) Stand up as much as possible; stand when answering the phone or walk around the office if you use a headset or speaker phone
4) Take breaks as often as you can, even if it’s just a quick lap around your floor or an extra walk around the block when you are grabbing lunch. I sip on water all day long figuring my bladder will force me to get up even if I don’t think about it!
5) Try to do the same this outside of the office; get up and walk around during commercial breaks rather than checking email (or even better do some jumping jacks, sit-ups or even some gentle stretching...commercial breaks are longer than you think!!!) 
Those few minutes here or there that you can move around a bit really add up and make a difference over time.
More interesting info:

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