We've all heard the bad news that sitting will kill you. That might be a slight exaggeration, and hey, we're all going to die someday, after all. But our chair-loving lifestyle isn't helping us live any longer, that's for sure. It's associated with everything from cardiovascular disease to type 2 diabetes and even cancer.
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And if you think you're compensating for your sedentary desk job by exercising, well, your high-intensity workout is good for many things, but it doesn't give you leave to be a desk potato the rest of the day. A 2014 study found that moving frequently throughout the day is a more effective antidote to sedentary work than an hour's worth of fitness. Think of it like how studying intermittently for a week for a test works better than cramming the night before.
How Much Do You Need to Move?
We asked Roland Denzel, wellness coach and author (with Galina Denzel) of Eat Well, Move Well: 52 Ways to Feel Better in a Week. He began his movement journey when he started getting aches and pains from his desk job. That's when he discovered the Pomodoro productivity technique, which uses 25 minutes of work time followed by a five-minute break "to refresh the brain and renew concentration".
The Pomodoro Technique can help you power through distractions and get things done in short bursts. If you have a job that expects you to meet deadlines, it's a great way to get through your tasks. Let's break it down and see how you can apply it to your work.
Denzel then came across a study that showed that using these breaks for movement also lowered blood glucose and insulin levels in office workers. (Just recently the same researchers found that moving every 25 minutes, along with a 30-minute daily walk, also reduces blood lipid levels). So that's the interval he encourages his clients to work with. Set a timer to work for 25 minutes, and then get up to walk, stretch and move around for five minutes before getting back to work. (If getting up every 25 minutes sounds like too much for you, Denzel recommends starting with getting up for a few minutes every hour and working up to that higher frequency.)
Jill Henderzahs-Mason, physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, agrees that moving every half hour is ideal. "At the bare minimum, you should get up and change positions for at least a minute or two," she says. Holding the same position for hours every day will break down the body over time.
So that's how often you should move. What do you do once you're up? Just, you know, wave your arms around or something?
Which Moves Work Best
Denzel recommends three types of movements.
Stretches and easy exercises. "That means lifting the arms overhead, leaning the body to one side, bending forward to open the back line of the legs, even letting your eyes gaze far out the window, which relaxes the eye muscles." Those of us who spend a lot of time with our hands on the keyboard can use the desk surface to stretch our fingers and wrists. "It all comes down to being creative," he says. Always be looking for movement opportunities. (ABLMO, right?)
Henderzahs-Mason likes using a desk chair to do lunges, squats, heel and toe raises, and standing balances. You can do shoulder rolls to take tension out of the neck and then do press-ups out of your chair with your hands bracing on the arm rests. "Really it's just a matter of getting as creative as you can and getting out of your comfort zone as much as you can."
Walking. "Walking is a whole body reflexive movement and involves every major muscle and organ in the body," Denzel says. It's also something you can do just about anywhere without looking weird.
Henderzahs-Mason also urges her clients to walk more. "Take a walking meeting, take a wellness walk. If you have something to do, make more work out of it." Send your documents to a printer farther from your desk. Choose the restroom on the other end of the office. If you take public transport, get out a stop early.
Changing your working position. This could be as simple as moving your legs and taking a moment to make sure you're holding your spine up tall. Check in on your breathing and take a few long, deep breaths. Henderzahs-Mason says changing your working position is as important as moving more frequently. So when you get up for a movement break, see if you can resume work in a different position, whether that's standing (if you have that capability) or at least sitting differently. Doing this, Denzel says, "keeps my body and mind fresh."
If you can talk Human Resources into supplying one, a standing desk or even a treadmill desk can offer more movement options. Caution: You don't want to remain standing at a desk all day. Holding any position has deleterious effects on your health. But it's helpful to have working position options.
Personally, I like working on a yoga ball. In fact, if you can get away with it, see how far you can go in creating a work environment that supports standing and moving around. "We recommend using simple fitness tools, like a platform or dome, to stretch the calf muscles," Denzel says. You could bring in a small massage ball for your feet or even a wobble board. Having inviting objects around like these for the entire office to share help create what Denzel calls a "movement culture-oriented workplace".
If you have back pain, yoga may be the last thing you feel like doing. But after 12 weeks of a gentle, beginner-level yoga program, people in a recent study had as much pain relief as those who did physical therapy sessions. And either type of exercise worked better than doing nothing at all.
If Stretches and Leg Lifts Are Too Awkward for Your Office
OK, at this point some of you are picturing a playroom filled with mini-trampolines and foam rollers and thinking whoa, whoa, whoa. That may work for you kids working in media or advertising, but it's not going down at my office. Well, for you I've brought in a third expert: My partner. He works in a suit in an environment that does not exactly encourage desk squats. But he still finds way to keep moving all day. These are his secrets.
Get a headset. When you have conference calls, especially long ones, use it so you can pace hallways.
Talk with people in person whenever possible. Instead of picking up the phone or instant messaging, get up and walk to your colleagues' spaces. This makes for better communication, anyway.
Drink a lot of water. Try to fill your glass every hour or so. This will also send you to the bathroom fairly often, which means more walking.
Use the stairs. I know, this is the advice everyone gives you. Are you doing it yet? Maybe you're on the 30th floor and walking all the way up sounds insane. You could get out at the 27th floor and walk the last three flights up.
Get lunch somewhere farther away. Instead of going to the closest, most convenient lunch spot, walk at least a full street away so you get a real walk out of your lunch break.
One last barrier to movement you may be dealing with are your clothes. For a lot of us, it's gotten to the point where business casual means athleisurewear, which means you can practically do yoga by your desk. But some of you are still expected to show up in, you know, actual business attire.
"We definitely understand the limitations of clothing and shoes when it comes down to moving at work," says Denzel. He recommends building your work wardrobe from brands that design movement-friendly clothing. Aella, Betabrand and Ministry of Supply, for example, are recreating the staples in much more movable textiles.
Something else you can keep in mind, if you're still feeling timid about getting physical around the office — you could start with simple stretches of your ankles, knees, wrists and neck, and save the bigger moves for when decompress at home. "Nothing can stop you from massaging your foot with a tennis ball," Denzel says. Oh, I can think of something: Fear of offending office mates with the sight — and possibly aroma — of my unshod foot. But then I can also see myself sneaking a foot massage under the desk while everyone else is away at lunch.
The point is, you have a lot of options. So figure out what kind of workplace movement works for you, and own it. Set that timer for 25 minutes and make movement — of any sort — your new routine. And see what kind of difference it makes in how you feel at the end of the day.