Sedentary work shouldn’t sabotage your health. Like emails in your inbox, studies on the health harms of being sedentary keep piling up. Even so, the toxic combination of spending long hours sitting and leading an…
Sedentary work shouldn’t sabotage your health.
Like emails in your inbox, studies on the health harms of being sedentary keep piling up. Even so, the toxic combination of spending long hours sitting and leading an overall inactive lifestyle is the reality for 1 in 10 U.S. adults, according to a research letter published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although you can’t always break away from your desk, you can mitigate the health effects of workday sitting. These on-the-job exercises, before-work workouts, after-hour activities and motivation suggestions can help you incorporate fitness throughout your career.
You can tone your midsection even as you create spreadsheets at your desk. “A strong core will prevent injury and reduce pain that can develop elsewhere,” says fitness expert Christie Seaver. “One of the simplest and best exercises I suggest to my clients is core breathing, which can be done sitting, standing, waiting at a bus or subway stop — anywhere to bring awareness back to your breathing and core.” To practice core breathing, first inhale and let your core expand, says Seaver, a Texas transplant, owner of D4 Pilates and founder of Ballet-lates, based in Dublin. “When you exhale, draw your muscles up and in, like you are zipping up your skinny jeans,” she says. “Ten to 20 focused repetitions usually do the trick.”
Neck and shoulder stretches
Thrusting your head forward past your shoulders to focus on your computer screen puts strain on your neck muscles and ligaments. Neck stretches can help counteract that effect. “Tilt the head to (the right) — ear to shoulder, while looking straight ahead — and place the right hand above the left ear,” Seaver says. “Hold and breathe while gently applying slight pressure above the ear. Then repeat to the other side.” She also recommends shoulder circles — simply rotating shoulders up, down, forward and back five times, then doing the same in the opposite direction. Stretching brings multiple benefits, such as preventing injury, increasing blood flow, regulating breathing and calming the mind. “With a clear mind, we’re more productive in whatever we do,” she notes.
“Most people don’t stretch their calf muscles enough, especially ladies who wear heels all day or men who hit the pavement and run as their primary form of exercise,” says Seaver, a former ballet dancer. “I highly recommend calf muscle stretches as some of the best stretches of all.” Anyone can benefit from this apparently simple flexibility exercise: “Stand straight with your feet parallel,” she says. “While keeping your heels on the ground, bend you knees out over your toes without sticking your tailbone out.” Doing so can be surprisingly hard, but helpful, she says: “Eight to 10 repetitions will lengthen the calves right away.”
You may have likely heard “sitting is the new smoking” and that no matter how much you exercise, you can’t undo the insidious health effects of being continually sedentary. Dr. Benjamin Levine, an authority on the exercise-heart connection, doesn’t buy into that. Regular exercise can help, says Levine, founder and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. Standing every so often at work — good for your back, legs and mind — is a start, he says, but standing desks aren’t nearly enough. To benefit your heart, you need to move. “You can accumulate exercise over time,” he says. “Taking a brisk walk at lunch, climbing the stairs, parking your car far away from the door — all these things are useful. They burn calories and build net minutes of exercise.”
Your potential new fitness partner could be waiting in a nearby cubicle. Having a workout buddy is motivating and helps you stick with your exercise goals. Coming in early to meet for a morning run is a great way to check off “workout” on your daily to-do list. Levine, also a professor of internal medicine-cardiology and exercise sciences at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, created the “Exercise Prescription for Life.” Among weekly time and intensity guidelines for physical activity and strength training, his fitness Rx calls for spending one hour, one day a week, doing something fun. Playing volleyball or soccer on your office team is an enjoyable way to build healthy camaraderie with co-workers.
Bike-sharing programs popping up across the country are bringing new life to boring daily commutes. You can build cardiovascular endurance, stretch and strengthen your leg muscles, and trade office fluorescents for natural sunlight while you pedal. (Avoiding rush-hour traffic jams and subway stoppages is an extra perk.) Map out your route, strap on a helmet and enjoy the physical and mind-clearing benefits of cycling.
Pilates and ballet
Poor posture stemming from workplace slumping can be bad for your health. Standing or sitting with incorrect posture can tax bones and joints, strain muscles and hamper how you walk and move. On the other hand, good postural alignment will boost circulation, optimize breathing and increase your sense of balance. Both Pilates and ballet training emphasize building a strong core and proper posture. Seaver teaches classes that combine the two. With ballet, she says, “The mind is working while listening to music and following the steps — which is great for increasing coordination and focus, while blocking out the distractions so integral to our daily life.” Enjoyable workouts are more motivating, she adds: “My most regular clients are the ones who build classes into their daily routine, scheduling Pilates before work or on their way home.”
Many workplaces offer wellness benefits such as gym memberships and company-paid time to exercise. Employers may partner with local fitness facilities to provide free or discounted access to gym equipment and exercise classes for workers. Some workers break a healthy sweat without even leaving the building. These employees can hit the gym, take yoga classes, swing kettlebells and otherwise meet their fitness needs at comprehensive on-site wellness centers. If your employer offers gym-based benefits, fitness facilities or company-provided exercise time, why not take advantage of it?
Maybe you’d rather exercise in the privacy of your home, then show up at work glowing and ready to go. If so, fitness podcasts, online studio streaming, virtual personal trainersor on-demand workout videos may be right for you. You can choose from a smorgasbord of online options. Podcast training programs for beginning runners, streaming barre workouts and on-demand Zumba or weight-training videos are just a sample of what’s available on your smartphone or laptop. Compact 30-minute-or-less workouts let you squeeze in a morning fitness session and make it to work on time for that 9 a.m. corporate meeting.
Home gym equipment
If you’re a weekend warrior or telecommuter, investing in home fitness equipment can make sense. Project ideas may pop into mind as you run on the treadmill or do weightlifting reps on your workout bench. The convenience of having your own home gym reduces time and travel barriers to maintaining your fitness routine. Working parents of younger children can stay fit and make time for family as well. Outdoor child carriers and exercise gear — from jogging strollers to hiking backpacks — let busy moms and dads keep moving while safely taking care of their kids.