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?
Here’s a few things that I have worked into my daily office routine.
->Get up and network/visit/bullshit with a few key co-workers one to two times a day for 30 min or so.
->Take at least one out of the office walk for 15-20 min (during working hours, but this could be also be around lunchtime). I usually take 1-2 walks around the serenity pond we have out behind the office per day for about a 1.25mi total. This helps clear your mind, think through problems, etc.
->Workout on my lunch break. Everyday. On light days focus on getting the blood flowing with some overhead press, pushups, something like that and then working on stretching and alignment in my upper back through a couple of yoga poses. Then a quick lunch at the office.
->We just got adjustable sitting/standing desks, I’ll be trying this out more as well.
My philosophy is that if I spend my day working for the man, I will eat, poop, and workout on his dime as well. Good post!
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Ha ha nice, and thanks! Working out on your lunch break is a great idea, just don’t forget to pack some deodorant in your desk!
I am lucky I don’t have a “desk” job. However when I do need to work on my computer, I sit on a yoga ball. It makes me move and I work on stabilizing my abs at the same time. Also I will make a point to get up every 15-20 minutes. I will stand and stretch and do a couple sets of squats or push-ups. I will also set my laptop in a counter and stand and work. Sitting is one of the worst things you can do for your back. Great post and tips.
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I’ve never tried the ball before but I could definitely see that as being a great option for shifting the load on your back and butt around to keep from wearing out one spot. Thanks for sharing!
Love these tips! As a competitive athlete in my off-time, I am not used to sitting in a desk all day and find it extremely difficult to keep my energy levels up. I normally do a 30 minute run in the mornings, and then lift weights or play soccer in the evenings, that way I have a routine that allows for tons of activity.
Another thing I love to do at my desk is engage my core simply by lifting my feet off the ground while sitting. It’s a good way to wake yourself up, trust me!
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Exercise in the morning sounds like a great idea, if you can stand to get up that early Ha! Thanks for the feedback!
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As a writer, I spend far too long sitting at my computer every day. I try to balance that out by alternating activites, at least when I’m working at home. It’s amazing how many, small, utterly boring jobs you can get done while waiting for a file to save/load/print. I also begin and end my day by taking a walk around the garden with the animals. Pee walk for them, fresh air and natural light for me.
Of course, none of that applies when suffering from stupid, self-inflicted injuries. My head thinks I’m still 20, my body knows that repetitive bending and twisting is NOT a good idea at 65. -sigh-