How to be active and healthy in a desk job

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said:

Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to pay the bills and make money. Then he sacrifices that money to recuperate his health.

The evolution (or devolution?) of the desk job

After the Industrial Revolution, it became normal to work in jobs requiring less and less movement or physical exertion. Add in the technological revolution with laptops and smartphones and your left with a lifestyle that is centered around sitting.

Today, sedentary work is commonplace.

But what do we know about how this is changing our bodies and impacting our health?

Violence was the most common cause of mortality in paleolithic humans. Modern humans, however, overwhelmingly die as a result of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers – all closely linked to sedentary lifestyles.

The first several years of my working life were spent sitting at a desk for up to 10 hours a day, staring at a screen, responding to emails, sitting in on meetings, listening in on conference calls and trying to avoid the office politics.

Physically, I didn’t do anything. Yet at the end of the day I felt as though I had run a marathon I was so drained.

Perhaps you can relate to this type of lethargic tired? A survey of over 1 million office workers found that the number one complaint of people who work in desk jobs is lack of physical activity.  Hence, it’s a common issue.

And the common solution was to exercise outside of work. It’s ok to sit down all week so long as I run a marathon on the weekend. Seems logical right? But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I had exercised my entire adult life and felt really fit despite my desk job. However, this gradually caught up to me when I noticed a loss of flexibility in my upper spine and hips.

Once I implemented posture exercises and standing up every 30 minutes when sitting this soon improved. The reality is that even if you do get a sufficient amount of exercise, you may still endanger your health simply by sitting too much.

No amount of exercise can offset prolonged daily sitting

An analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking.

So how can you practically counter this?

Having worked in an office environment for several years, I understand the challenges that many people face when it comes to being active. Demands to complete work and a culture that can make you feel ashamed and lazy for taking breaks too often is all too common. Working more hours then someone else is seen as a status symbol.

Yet we need to evolve this thinking because it is actually making us less productive, less healthy and more stressed.

Fortunately, the answer is simple. And it’s not just about correct posture when sitting. This is important, yet this goes beyond that.

You just need to make sure you move your body frequently. The act of standing up from a seated position has been found particularly effective at counteracting the ill effects of sitting. Yet not all of us may be able to have a standing desk. Below are the top 3 practical ways to do this.

The top 3 practical and fun ways to make your desk job healthier

I think the question shouldn’t be how to exercise more. Rather, it should be how to increase the number of times you interrupt prolonged sitting.

  1. Exercise snacking
30 seconds of exercise is equivalent to 1 cup of coffee for boosting brain power

Stand up and do 30 seconds of movement every 30 minutes. Neuroscience has shown that just a tiny bit of movement increases blood flow to allow more oxygen and nutrients to reach cells for the creation of energy, alertness and cognitive performance. Further research suggests that 30 seconds of exercise has double the cognitive boost as a cup of coffee.

Set a timer every 30 minutes or keep a journal of the number of times you get up and tick off every time you do. Or walk up some stairs, do squats in the toilet, find an empty meeting room or head outside for 1 minute. Any movement is good enough but some exercises you may try are;

  • Star jumps
  • Jumping jacks
  • Burpees
  • Press ups
  • Squat jumps
  • Jump lunges

It may look silly, but get over it. It’s important. Your health is worth a comment or two. People might even join in when you mention you are working to prevent back pain and disease.

If you are worried that taking regular breaks may seem like your slacking or getting distracted, research has proven multiple times that taking regular breaks is much more productive then staying sat down for long periods without getting up.

  1. Take a real lunch break without technology

Two thirds of British workers don’t even take 20 minutes for lunch. The most common excuse is having too much work and therefore feeling obliged to work through their lunch. This is a symptom of the working harder and longer culture that is failing our health and productivity.

Perhaps with the exception of repetitive jobs that do not require any thought, working longer does not equate to being more productive.

Ensuring you take lunch means you will get daylight which is especially important in winter to counter seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Even if it isn’t sunny, you will get a boost just from the fresh air and daylight.

So take 30 mins to be active at lunch such as taking a walk.

  1. Meetings on the move or standing meetings

This is not always practical. However, if you don’t require screens and have a quiet park close by you’ll be amazed how much more effective a walking or outside meeting can be.

Be honest, do you really concentrate all the way through a meeting? It’s natural for us to drift off. Especially when the meeting is long and you are sat down the whole time.

We’ve become over reliant on screens to take centre stage. We can’t imagine delivering a meeting without a PowerPoint presentation in front of us.

Yet if you moved or were at least standing during the meeting you would be much more alert given the aforementioned effects that standing or moving has on cognitive performance. Hence, there would be more creativity and focus to get through the agenda leading to greater productivity.

Get up more to be healthier and more productive

Sitting too much plays havoc on your health. No amount of exercise outside a desk job can counter this. It’s not about exercising more, it’s about standing up more to interrupt your prolonged sitting. So get up more, move regularly and be more productive as well as healthy at the same time! It’s a win, win.


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