I love being an engineer and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but of all the rewarding experiences I get to enjoy at work sitting immobile for hours on end is not one of them.
Taking a look at the typical day in the life of an office worker reveals that physical inactivity is the default action: Wake up in laying position. Get in the car and sit through traffic. Sit at work for 8 hours. Return home feeling tired from the inactivity and so inclined to sit back for some low impact TV time until finally passing out for the night. Only 4 more days to go, welcome to the life of a desk jockey.
There’s more to this story than my complaining about a sore butt. Excessive sitting leads to weight gain, reduced energy level, and an array of serious health risks including reduced life expectancy. People are simply not built for sitting as much as our modern technology driven lives require us to. That’s why I put together this list of low-effort high-impact things you can do at the office to reduce the physical health impacts of a sedentary job.
Let start by establishing what it means to be physically inactive at work. You’ve probably heard of the 10,000 steps per day (4-5 miles) target for healthy adults, well that’s actually a bit ambitious. You can meet the CDC’s recommended daily activity by taking 7,000 to 8,000 steps a day. The typical US adult still falls short of this with an average of 5,900 steps per day.
I invested $4 in a pedometer and a couple weeks of experimenting to see how I measured up:
|Michael’s 24 hr Step Count||Average +/- Std. Dev|
|Work Day||6,133 +/- 1,097|
|Weekend/Day Off||9,333 +/- 5,033|
I tried putting the pedometer on my wife and dog too, but they kept kicking it off and growling at me.
I also observed some coworkers who took far fewer steps than I did while at work. On top of that, about 1/3 of my recorded work day steps were taken after returning home.
What the pedometer data doesn’t tell us about are the nights I’ve suffered from restless legs, the lethargic feeling I get after a day of sitting, or the weight I gained soon after taking this job. It was a rough transition into the job but I’ve since figured out how to adjust.
*My theory is that your physical health is most affected by the daily activities worked into your routine, while outlier events have less of an effect. Every once in a while I have an extra hard workout or pig-out session but those events are so brief that they don’t have a lasting effect.
On the other hand the little changes I make to my daily routine have a compound effect because I unconsciously carry them out so often. The key to making significant change is having the discipline to develop the right habits.
Keystone Habits of Health:
Using the Pedometer: Quality assurance rule #1: Anything you track will improve. Keeping a pedometer on you every day gives you a measurable indication of how active you’ve been and lets you know if you need to step it up. Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your health, so if a $4 device encourages you do more of it then that’s a winning investment.
Improved Sitting Ergonomics: If you have to sit for long durations then at least make sure your body posture won’t leave you crippled at the end of the day. This was a big problem for me at home for a long time and I even designed an entire electric motorcycle conversion while crouching over a coffee table. My lower back pain inspired me to build a custom desk for home use that allowed for proper ergonomic seating.
Standing Desk: I LOVE having the option to stand occasionally at work. Even using it for a couple hours a day is enough to make a noticeable difference in the way I feel. Standing desks don’t have to be complicated to get the job done. People sell these things for hundreds of dollars, but I was satisfied with a wood stool.
Stock up on Healthy Snacks: It shouldn’t be a surprise that you might need a random snack to get through the work day. So WHY don’t more people stock up on healthy foods instead of relying on the expensive vending machine crap food? Failing to plan is planning to fail! I always keep a few nonperishable options in my desk like mixed nuts, green tea, oatmeal, granola bars, and gum.
Pack your Lunch: I love to cook so I make big dinners and eat the leftovers all week. Doing so saves me a few bucks and ensures that I’ll put something healthy into my body come noon tomorrow.
The Wendy’s Diet: To be realistic, cooking can be a pain sometimes and not everyone is good at it. When I’m too lazy to pack the sack I’ll add a measured 1000 steps to my day by walking to the nearby Wendy’s and getting a small burger and salad. By skipping the soda and fries I can have a reasonably healthy and convenient lunch for only $3.
Otherwise this is the closest I’ll get to being outside today.
Simple Protein Breakfast: I’ve already discussed some silly eating experiments I’ve tried before, none that I recommend. But I did notice a major positive change when I made the switch from sugar-packed-ultra-frosted cereal to a nutrient filled protein shake. The shake leaves me feeling more alert and full longer; plus it’s cheap, quick, and easy. My secret recipe is Milk + Whey Protein + Yogurt in a blender bottle. Best consumed while listening to Freakonomics Radio Podcast in the car.
Employing all of the above steps greatly improved my quality of life at work and helped me get back into shape, but if you’ve been there and done that and you’re still hurting then maybe you should consider…
…Getting a Different Job: Lots of folks simply cannot tolerate a sedentary job, and that’s OK. Engineering is a very broad field, so we are fortunate to have lots of unique job options for finding work outside the office if that’s a priority.
Well that’s all I’ve got for now, what are your best tips for surviving a sedentary job?