Health and fitness: 15 great ways to get office active
Even with regular exercise, people who are stuck at a desk all day are at risk of a new health epidemic known as 'sitting disease', writes Claire O'Mahony. Here are ways to prevent it
It's safe to assume that office life is not the healthiest, with its vending machine temptations, the risk of catching co-workers' illnesses and the possibility of developing repetitive strain injury. But the most dangerous aspect of it is the one thing that office workers do every day - sitting.
"Sitting disease" has been cited as the new health epidemic. According to a leading heart charity, more than 50% of men and women here do not meet recommendations for physical activity and health, which is at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity on five days of the week, and the majority of employees working in many companies fall into this category.
Sitting down for hours has been linked to type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease, muscle degeneration, leg disorders and certain cancers. It's also bad for mental health and one of the well-known aspects of a sedentary lifestyle is weight gain. Cycling and walking to work are great ways to keep fit but you still need to get active throughout the working day, as even if you are getting regular exercise, too much sitting is bad for your health.
1. Sit properly
If you're tired and achy after a day at the office, it could be as much to do with your posture, as it is to do with the day's stresses. Slouch at your desk and you're risking muscular problems, leading to a sore back and neck, and digestive problems. Feet should be flat on the floor, never crossed, with knees level with the hips and pelvis tilted slightly forward.
Adjust your chair so that your lower back is supported, keep your bottom pressed to the back of the chair. Positioning your computer correctly is also important. Generally, the monitor should be about an arm's length away and the top of the screen at eye level. Anything you need to use regularly such as printed material or the phone should be close enough to avoid excessive stretching, or far enough away that it requires you to stand up and get them. Once your posture is in order, do simple stretching movements throughout the day to boost energy.
2. Walk, don't email
An over-reliance on email has become a modern curse and inbox overload is a widespread cause of stress - it's that sinking feeling when you have more emails to read than you have hours in the day. There's also something ridiculous about receiving an email from a co-worker, sitting just beside you. Next time you're about to ping a colleague, walk to their desk instead. Human contact is more pleasant than technology and even such a short break has health benefits.
A study from the University of Indiana last year found that three, even slow, five-minute walks can reverse harm caused to leg arteries during three hours of prolonged sitting.
3. Take the stairs
If you work in a multi-storey building, you have a ready-made workout to avail of. Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden published a study last year where they claimed that more than an hour of moderate exercise per day can cut your risk of heart failure by 46% and they recommended that simple steps you can take include taking the stairs or walking.
Stair climbing is a good exercise because it builds muscle mass and expends calories. A study published in the European Heart Journal followed 69 hospital employees who swapped the lift for the stairs for 90 days. Their body fat dropped by 1.7%c, their waist circumference dropped 1.8%; blood pressure fell 2.3% and their LDL cholesterol fell 3.9% while their lung capacity went up 8.6%.
4. Stand when you can
To counteract some of the ill effects of sitting - including the fact that production of the enzymes in our body that burn fat decreases by 90% after one hour of sitting - many companies are increasingly looking to "standing" desks. It's worth investigating if your company would be open to the idea of introducing standing workstations. Even if they're not, you can make standing a more regular part of your office routine by giving up your chair in overcrowded meetings or by taking phone calls standing up.
5. Do a silent squeeze
Search "deskercise" on the internet and you'll come up with thousands of suggestions for office workouts. But, many of them aren't realistic in a work environment, and your boss may not appreciate you breaking out into a series of squats beside the photocopier. However, there are exercises you can do at the privacy of your desk and no one will know. Glute squeezes tone the buttocks: squeeze them and hold for five-10 seconds before relaxing. Do this for one minute and repeat throughout the day.
6. Be phone savvy
Every time you have a take or make a call, leave your desk to do so and walk around. Your ringtone should be the cue to get on your feet and move. If you use your handset more than your mobile, consider getting a wireless headset. And see if you can replace phone calls with face-to-face meetings. Your co-workers will probably thank you too as listening to colleagues' phone calls consistently ranks as one of the most annoying things about working in an office.
7. Shoulder it
Shoulder pain is a common workplace complaint and the causes are generally cumulative. Sitting correctly is important to stop shoulder pain developing, but also try switching your mouse to the other side of the desk to give your mouse-hand a break. Try to not engage in the same activity for prolonged periods, so if you've a few hours' worth of phone calls to make, space them out throughout the day. To give your shoulders a work out, put your hands on the arms of your chair and slowly lift yourself off the seat and lower back down, without actually sitting down on the seat. Hold and repeat 10 times.
8. Have a walking meeting
It's not as crazy as it sounds - just watch business innovator Nilofer Merchant's persuasive 2013 TED talk about walking meetings. "Instead of going to coffee meetings or fluorescent-lit conference room meetings, I ask people to go on a walking meeting, to the tune of 20 to 30 miles a week. It's changed my life," she says. If you can convince colleagues, the benefits are myriad. There's the health aspect, but walking meetings can also boost productivity. A University of Michigan study found that people who spent time outside were better able to solve creative problems. Another study published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology points to short-term memory performance being improved by taking a walk.
9. Be ab fab
Tighter stomach muscles are everyone's dream. Give them helping hand in the office without anybody else realising. Ab squeezes are a simple isometric exercise. Sit up straight in your chair and contract your abs as hard as you can, hold for two to three seconds and bring them in towards your spine as you exhale. Aim to do this for up to 15 repetitions.
If you have a radio on in the office, do the exercise for at least two songs. You can do it anytime and anywhere, such as on the bus.
10. Watch your stress levels
Managing anxiety is vital. Many of us accept stress as a natural part of working life but too much of it has terrible effects. Even if you are trying to be more active, stress could be the reason you're not in shape. An excess of the stress hormone, cortisol, has been linked to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen. Physical activity is a proven stress-level reducer.
Meditation and mindfulness can help and the key is to do something about the stressors you can control, whether it's organising your time better or avoiding people who make you feel anxious. You'll be better able to deal with work blunders if you remove self-created stressors from your life.
11. Always be ready
Studies have shown that if you're wearing comfortable shoes and clothes, you're more likely to be active. If it's a trial to even totter to the water cooler in your shoes, you're less likely to remain seated for the majority of the day. This means swapping stilettoes for flats - there's no rule that says heels are necessary to achieve professional success.
Prolonged wearing of high heels has been linked to spinal injuries and migraines. If you'd prefer heels, keep a pair of trainers at your desk, which might encourage you to take a lunchtime walk.
12. Battle the 4pm slump
Avoid the afternoon crash. Skip carb-heavy lunches, which cause blood sugars to spiral and then drop, leaving you craving a sugar fix. Swap pasta, rice and white bread for wholegrains for a steady release of energy.
Drink enough water too, as dehydration makes you feel tired. Instead of reaching for the chocolates, make 4pm slump time your opportunity to do something non-eating related like flossing your teeth (which also makes you feel less like eating) or going for a power walk.
13. Remind yourself to move
It's incredible how a working day can run away with you and how you can feel literally chained to the desk. Try to get active every 30 minutes. Set an alarm or put a post-it on your computer to remind yourself. Then spend one to two minutes doing something physical, whether it's an ab squeeze, a walk to the water cooler, or stretching.
14. Track yourself
The benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day are well documented. A pedometer helps you track your progress and is a motivator. According to Harvard Health Publications, a summary of 26 different studies indicated that pedometer users walked at least 2,000 more steps per day than non-users and that by using a pedometer, they increased activity levels by 27%.
15. Buddy up
It helps to have a like-minded person in the workplace, so see if you can join forces with someone who is also keen to go for lunchtime strolls or do an exercise class. It's always good to have a challenge, too.