At PhysEmp.com in Fairfield, Melinda Fishel, Theresa Melvin, and Rachel Kruzich take a break from sitting in front of their computers.
Here’s a challenge for you: Google any variation of “Sitting is bad for you” or “Sitting is the new smoking” and you will see that every major publication and news outlet has run an article on the dangers of prolonged sitting—also known as working in an office. The Iowa Source was a leader on this trend, publishing an article by Cheryl Fusco Johnson back in April 2010 called “The Killer Chairs! Sitting all Day is Very, Very Bad for You.” Just try reading any of these articles without being overcome by an irresistible urge to stand up and go for a walk. Impossible, right?
Most of us know that sitting all day is bad for our posture and our back, but according to the Mayo Clinic website, excessive sitting is also associated with weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, a greater chance of dying from cancer, and decreased life expectancy in general. And the worst part is, according to the clinic, that exercise outside of work hours is not enough to alleviate the damage caused by eight-plus hours of sitting a day.
This is bad news for those of us who are attached to the things that working at a desk all day allows us to buy—like food and shelter. For advice on mitigating the health hazards, I turned to JC Moreau, a trainer and former head coach of sports performance at the University of Iowa, and Tanell Pretorius, a Fairfield-based yoga instructor and CrossFit trainer. Here’s what they recommend.
Next time you’re at your desk, take a moment to check your posture. You’re probably either hunched over your keyboard or sitting with your belly sticking out and your back arched, compressing your spine. JC recommends this series of desk exercises to help strengthen core muscles that have been weakened by sitting and counteract your tendency to hunch over your desk. Start by doing one to three reps of each exercise and build up the number of reps and times per day from once an hour to four times an hour, eventually increasing the duration for up to 30 seconds. JC cautions that it’s more important to do the exercise correctly at first than to do it often.
1. At your desk, sit up straight and tall, tighten your core muscles by pulling your belly button in, and squeeze your core muscles at 30 to 40 percent intensity, holding for 10 seconds.
2. Next, while still sitting up straight, pull your shoulder blades down and together and squeeze. Hold for 10 seconds.
3. Finally, stand up from your chair and squeeze your glutes for 20 seconds to reactivate them.
Sitting all day shortens the psoas muscles, which sets the stage for painful back problems. To prevent this, Tanell recommends alternating between standing and sitting as much as possible. Ideally, your boss can’t wait to invest in a standing workstation for you, but if that’s not the case, get into the habit of standing up any chance you get. Stand up while you’re on the phone, or any time you’re doing work that doesn’t require you to be at your computer. Tanell emphasizes that it’s important to wear good shoes and to make sure you’re standing correctly by positioning your feet under your hips and keeping your glutes and core engaged. Make sure your legs are not locked and avoid shifting your weight into one leg or the other.
One Step at a Time
According to JC, “Studies show people who take fewer than 5,000 steps per day have a much higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Those who take 10,000 or more have significantly lower rates of these diseases.”
If your employer doesn’t have an exercise room, take every opportunity you can to get up and move around.
So take any opportunity to stand up and move around at work. Walk to your coworker’s office instead of emailing, walk to work if you live close enough or park farther away from your office, take the stairs whenever possible, and use the restroom that’s farthest away from your workstation. In some offices it may even be possible to bring in weights or resistance bands and do a few reps with them throughout the day. JC recommends eating lunch at your desk so you can use the extra time to go for a walk or take a yoga class.
I have to confess that I used to roll my eyes when I saw tips like these online or in women’s magazines. Then I got a pedometer app on my phone and saw just how much these short bursts of activity added up!
Fitness Outside the Office
Unfortunately, incorporating more activity into your workday doesn’t excuse you from exercising in your free time (Sorry if you were thinking you could just make a few extra trips to the water cooler during the day and then go home and watch House of Cards all evening.)
“People who have a job where they’re non-active need to get involved in a regular workout plan outside of work,” JC emphasizes. “Exercise really makes big improvements in general health, body composition, and longevity. But it has to be hard work. You have to be out of breath at some point.”
High-intensity intervals and strength training are what he recommends, but he cautions that it is better to gradually build up positive habits than to jump right into a six-day-a-week workout routine. And don’t worry if you’re intimidated by the idea of going to the gym. “Just find an activity that you like and that challenges you,” he says.
Tanell also points out that it’s important for office workers to dedicate some of their workout time to exercises and stretches that directly counter the effects of sitting all day and to make sure you extend your new habit of being active to your free time, too. “The bottom line is just having more range of motion in your life,” she says. “You spend so many hours in that one position that you just have to give some variety to your body; otherwise, your body forgets that it can actually move in certain directions.”
So how many of you made it through this article without standing up?