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Is My Desk Job Actually Killing Me?

I know plenty of people who are cops and firemen…jobs that involve real, palpable danger! For years I put on a suit and headed off to work in some shiny office building – what dangers did I have to worry about? Maybe the occasional paper cut? I primarily sat in front of a computer behind a desk ALL day long. Now I must admit I have long worried about what staring at a computer screen all day might do to my eyes (I now wear glasses; although most of my family is practically blind so I am grateful I lasted well into my 30s before having any issues) and we have all seen coworkers with the wrist braces due to carpal tunnel, but in general, like so many other office workers, I was never worried about how my job may be impacting my health.

However, a number of years ago I read an article entitled “Why Your Desk Job Is Slowly Killing You.” It seems that for many of us who sit at a computer 8+ hours a day, this can have detrimental effects on our bodies, even if you exercise regularly outside of work. Previously these people might be considered “active,” however now they are more accurately characterized as an "exercising couch potato” according to this article.

In the days of COVID, this becomes even more of an issue, as many people are not even leaving the house anymore. Sure we may all love to work from home for a variety of reasons, but it often means we spend more time chained to our desks, as I find I am on my computer as soon as I wake up and people feel since I am “working from home” I am way more available, even past the typical 6pm end of day. Add to that the stress of quarantine life and our new “not so normal” normal, gyms having been closed for months and many of us likely eating and drinking more than usual, the effects of that desk job become even more pronounced.

The main issue is that our bodies are not meant for sitting and even if they adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle, we decrease our ability to walk, run, jump, etc. Some studies have indicated that it actually shortens our lifespan…. sitting is now up there with other risk factors like smoking and excessive drinking. The Harvard Business Review published an article calling “Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation.” It’s no secret that our generally poor American diet, namely due to an unhealthy addiction to fast and processed foods and a more sedentary lifestyle had led to astronomical obesity rates in this country, along with many other deadly diseases. We all know that we should be moving around a lot more than we do.

Personally, I get downright antsy if I sit too long, but part of it is that now that my job has changed, I actually don’t sit that much anymore. Even when I am at home I am usually walking around when I am on the phone or standing at my computer. But there was a time when I would literally sit in office for so long, focused on some spreadsheet, that the lights would switch off because the motion sensor did not even detect me anymore!! Needless to say, I knew I needed to make some changes after that.

Some interesting (and SCARY) statistics:

· Long periods of sitting slows down the metabolism; after just 1 hour of sitting the production of enzymes that burn fat has been shown to decline by as much as 90%.

· Research shows that this lack of physical activity is directly tied to 6% of the impact for heart disease, 7% for type 2 diabetes and 10% for breast and colon cancer.

· The death rate associated with obesity in the US is now 35 million - compare that to tobacco which is only 3.5 million!

· The New York Times reported on a study published in 2011, which found that for each additional hour of TV a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11%. In that same article, a doctor is quoted as saying that excessive sitting, which he defines as nine hours a day, is a lethal activity!!

But what do you do if you have a desk job?

I read a suggestion by James Levine, a well know obesity expert, that people with sedentary jobs should get up for 10 minutes every hour. Nice work if you can get it, but most of us don’t have the ability to take a 10 minute break every hour…that’s a significant chunk of productive work time! I’d rather get in, get my work done and go home to do something fun with that 90 minutes! (He also suggests a treadmill desk (which he coincidently invented), but I am not even getting into how unrealistic that idea is!)

Turns out a few simple things can help:

1) Take the stairs rather than the elevator

2) If you can bike or walk to work. Or get off the subway one stop earlier (for you drivers…park your car farther away from the office door) – if you are working from home – trying taking a walk every night before or after dinner.

3) Stand up as much as possible; stand when answering the phone or walk around the office if you use a headset or speaker phone

4) Take breaks as often as you can, even if it’s just a quick lap around your floor or an extra walk around the block when you are grabbing lunch. I sip on water all day long figuring my bladder will force me to get up even if I don’t think about it! I also used to schedule breaks into my calendar, so I would get a reminder to get up and walk around every couple hours.

5) Try some desk stretches!

6) Try to do the same when outside of the office; get up and walk around during commercial breaks rather than checking email (or even better do some jumping jacks, sit-ups or even some gentle stretching...commercial breaks are longer than you think!!!)

Those few minutes here or there that you can move around a bit really add up and make a difference over time.

Some other interesting links:


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