Nearly 1 in 4 people blame aches and pains on their work environment because they remain in the same position for long periods of time. Is there something we can be doing about this? After all, we spend most of our day working and usually sitting and don’t actually have a choice to up and leave when the pain gets too much.
“We’re just not designed to sit for hours on end,” says personal trainer Louise Parker. “Being sedentary for long periods weakens the body and won’t encourage a healthy metabolism, digestion, or posture. As you sit for long periods over months and years, your posture can really suffer and overall muscle tone weakens. The lack of movement throughout the day can also result in a sluggish digestion and a general lack of energy,” she adds.
Is sitting down killing you?
“Essentially, the human body is a dynamic system that needs to move, and by spending too many hours at a time sitting down our bodies can develop musculoskeletal imbalances, as well as other health conditions, like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, although more often we see problems such as headaches, insomnia, lethargy, and back pain,” says former World and Olympic Champion athlete Sally Gunnell OBE. She helps businesses design, implement, and review workplace wellbeing schemes with her Healthy Living program.
Research from the American Cancer Society suggests that men who regularly sit for more than 6 hours a day had a 17% increased risk of death. Now consider that the average man spends 9.3 hours a day sitting down, far outweighing the 7.7 hours he spends asleep, he could be in a lot of trouble.
If you have a desk job then you’re more likely to suffer a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack, die from a heart or circulation problem, or develop diabetes. But what are the options? With longer working hours, longer commutes, and more people using their TVs, smart phones, and tablets as a means to relax, we are sitting down more than ever.
What can we do?
With inactivity now listed as the fourth biggest killer of adults by the World Health Organization, it’s time to change our habits and stop thinking it’s acceptable to come into the office and park yourself at your desk for the day. Although a power walk at lunch will clear your head, and a gym session after work is a step in the right direction, it’s the small micro-movements that you make throughout the day that can really make a difference – like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, “and taking every opportunity to get up and talk to someone rather than send an email,” says Louise, who always meets her clients at her clinic door, rather than take the elevator or have them sent up.
It’s the little things that add up, so, here are some ideas to start building some better habits.
“For any breaks that you have, head outdoors to eat your lunch or grab a coffee,” says Louise. “If you’re stuck on a trading floor or in a consulting room, make sure that every 30 minutes you stand up and do some stretches. Try not to sit still for longer than 30 minutes at any one time, without taking a break to walk about and mobilize.”
Change your chair
Speak to your office manager about changing your chair for something more supportive that promotes good posture and doesn’t add large amounts of pressure to the back muscles and discs. Simply not being able to slump all day can correct your posture, while ensuring you sit in the correct sitting position.
Measure, monitor, and walk
Research suggests we should be walking 10,000 steps a day – and unless you walk a long way to work you’ll need to get some of these done in the office. Use a pedometer to keep note of how many steps you take throughout your working day and continuously increase this amount.
Walking around the office may seem like a small amount of exercise but you will soon notice a significant increase in the number of steps you’re taking. Take all the opportunities you can to get on your feet: walk a longer route to your desk, or use the toilets on a different floor so you have to use the stairs. Another idea is to place your printer or trash bin walking distance from your desk, so you have to get up and walk to these every time you want to use them.
Staying physically active throughout the day – even getting up to make a coffee – keeps you mentally alert and will help your overall health.
Walk and talk
Rather than having an hour-long meeting, try a different approach. A 15-minute standing meeting will ensure that you get straight to the point, and data shows that standing meetings are not only shorter but also more effective.
If you need to have a private conversation, why not try a walking meeting instead? A walking meeting eases the tension and helps get conversation flowing, plus a change of scenery can often inspire some brighter thinking.
Stretch it out
“Try having a little stretch 3 to 5 times per day,” says Sally. “Duck into an empty meeting room if you want some privacy and focus on opening up the chest and the hips. Whatever your fitness level, small changes can go a long way to improving your health and with that comes increased confidence, productivity, and happiness.”
Create a healthy desk
Never eat lunch at your desk if you can help it. “Doing so can make you less productive while making you feel hungrier later on in the day,” says Robert Pozen, the author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. Try not to keep unhealthy snacks at your desk either, as they’ll be the first thing you reach for at times of stress and “instead make sure that you have some nutritious snacks in your drawer, like unsalted nuts and fruit,” says Greg Mikolap, creator of ptfolder.com. Don’t forget to drink as much water as possible throughout the day. This will help with hydration and will periodically encourage you to get up and walk to the bathroom.
Stand up and work
Take a page out of Arshad Chowdhury’s book, a health app designer from New York who was recently in the news for getting up from his chair and standing up and working instead. Chowdhury insists that since doing this, his productivity has increased and his posture has improved; his neck and shoulders no longer hunch forward, his legs have become more muscular and his back pain has entirely disappeared too.
Big companies such as Google and Facebook have done it in an effort to promote circulation and encourage movement throughout the day. But what about the rest of us? “Try to find a place where you can work standing up for periods throughout the day,” says Sally. “A lot of office workers have mobile phones and laptops nowadays so why not take a few calls standing up, or type up a report using the top of a filing cabinet as a standing desk?”
Pay attention to your posture
For busy desk dwellers hunched over computers all day, posture is something that is often neglected but is crucial to overall fitness. “Good posture allows you to breathe more deeply and easily, improves circulation and digestion – your organs have the space to function – and makes us look more confident and composed,” says Nahid de Belgeonne, Good Vibes founder and fitness expert. “Here’s a simple exercise that you can do at your desk to improve your posture,” she says.
- Sit up straight with both feet touching the floor
- Taking a breath in, draw pubic bone ever so slightly in towards the ribs to lengthen the lumbar spine.
- Now close your eyes, and draw your sitting bones together – the bones under the flesh of the bottom that you sit on.
- Lifting up through the sitting bones, feel your spine draw up to the pubic bone, towards the naval and continue to draw up towards your breastbone expanding upwards and outwards widening your collar bones.
- Now put your right hand behind your head and send the weight of your head in to your hand. This re-aligns your head to sit on top of your spine. We tend to lead with the chin and want to avoid hanging the head forwards.
To keep good posture throughout your sitting day, you can also invest in an exercise ball. Research, conducted by one producer of fitness and wellness equipment, found that there was a 33% increase in variation of abs movement when gently bouncing on an exercise ball at your desk and an increased energy expenditure. They also found that sitting on an exercise ball encourages bouncing, which keeps the legs moving and in turn stimulates circulation and keeps muscles busy, reducing stress and fatigue.
If an exercise ball simply isn’t an option for your office environment, then make sure your desk space is set up well so when you sit, your feet are on the floor and your computer is at eye level, then “regularly release your back by sitting upright in your chair, and then rotating to the left and right, 10 times,” says Greg. This may “result in more relaxed neck and lower back feeling,” he says. “You should also try and stand up every hour, stretch your arms overhead and take a few deep breaths, which will tilt the pelvis back to neutral and loosen up your lower back and hip flexors.”
You can also try taking a towel into work and rolling it up to use as a personalised back support when you feel yourself starting to slouch. “It can be placed horizontally to support the lumbar (lower back) curve of the spine, vertically along the spine to keep the shoulders back, or as a wedge to sit on to encourage forward tilting hips, which in turn allows a natural lumbar curve in the lower spine,” says Sally.