Ever tallied up how much time you spend on your butt? Researchers have, and for typical office workers, it’s not pretty. Between car time, computer time and couch time, most adults are on their soft sides for more than nine hours every day, according to a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. And the folks at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) point out that getting regular exercise is not the same thing as being active — it just means you’re active for about three percent of your day.
It’s those other waking hours that has health experts so concerned. “Having a regular fitness routine is important, but new research shows one block of daily exercise is not enough to put us on a path to good health," says Danielle Girdano, president of D’fine Sculpting & Nutrition in Dallas. "For that, you need to be more active throughout your entire day.”
Mounting evidence shows an association between uninterrupted hours of sitting around and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, a variety of cancers and chronic lower-back, neck and hip pain. Some examples: In 2011, the AICR linked about 90,000 new breast and colon cancers to prolonged sitting. Lengthy chair time (aka “sedentary behavior”) is now considered an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. One study found that women who sat for more than six hours each day — regardless of how much they exercised — had a 37 percent increased risk of premature death, compared with peers who sat for less than three hours. And when healthy men were asked to cut back their footsteps by 85 percent for two weeks, researchers found that their insulin sensitivity dropped 17 percent, which raised their risk of developing diabetes.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure why sitting is so damn bad for us, but they have their theories: For one, your muscles grow accustomed to the sitting position, which has a negative effect on your posture, balance, flexibility and circulation, and can trigger pain from head to toe. Another theory is that your metabolism stalls because your body isn’t producing as many fat-burning enzymes. Over time, your triglyceride and blood sugar levels rise and your levels of good cholesterol fall.
Luckily, there is a silver lining, says Girdano: “Simply standing up from time to time can help offset the damage.” Better yet, redefine multi-tasking to mean getting some work done while moving. With that in mind, we asked health experts to share their best no- or low-sweat ways to get out of your office chair and do your body some good.
1. Take a lap. Set an hourly alert on your computer, watch or phone to remind you that it’s time to get up and walk for two to five minutes. Not sure where to go? Running coach Budd Coates suggests picking a different destination every hour — the printer, the water cooler, the recycling area, the mail room, the lobby, etc. Take the longest route possible — preferably hitting different floors if your workplace is large enough — and walk as if you’re in a hurry to get back to your computer, says Coates, author of “Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter.”
2. Add some resistance. When you get back to your desk, before plopping into your chair, take another minute or two to do a simple body-resistance exercise, says Michele Stanten, author of “Walk Off Weight.” Some discreet moves to try: Chair squats (lift one foot off the floor and lower yourself into your chair, pause and stand up; repeat a few times before switching legs); heel and toe raises (with hands on hips for balance, slowly lift and lower your heels for several counts, switch to toes); leg swings (holding onto a chair back, swing one foot from side to side in front of the other for several counts, switch legs, then try a front-to-back swing with both legs). “You can even read your email or take a conference call while you’re doing these movements,” says Stanten.
3. Interact with coworkers. Instead of adding to a lengthy email chain, go and find your office mate and talk face-to-face (imagine!). If you’re the one calling for meetings, suggest what’s now known as a “pediconference” — yep, a good old-fashioned walk-and-talk. “If you’re worried you’ll forget something important that’s being discussed, just grab a digital recorder or use your smartphone’s voice memo app,” says Stanten, who runs MyWalkingCoach.com.
4. Bounce around. For those times when it’s hard to push away from your desk, Girdano says the solution is to keep a large, inflatable exercise ball nearby. “You can switch over to the ball every hour or two,” she says. “It won’t be an aerobic break, but your glutes, hips and core muscles will have to be engaged in order to keep you centered and steady.” Note that depending on your desk height you may need a ball that’s a different size than one you’d use at a gym; and she says you only need to use the ball for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Another option is to keep a stationary bike pedal system under your desk (found online for between $30 and $100).
5. Grab coffee or tea. At least once a day, try to get out of the building for 10 to 15 minutes, says Girdano. “It will be good for your body, your mind and probably your work, too,” she says. If there’s a coffee shop within walking distance, that’s your perfect destination, since coffee and tea both have many known health benefits. If there’s none in sight, grab a cup from the office pot and head outside. “Even if you’re in the parking lot, at least you’re getting some fresh air and stretching your legs,” she says. “You need that change of scenery to finish the day strong.”
TRIED AND TRUE WAYS TO MOVE MORE
* Drink lots ... The need to pee will force you out of your chair.
* Park far away ... Those few extra steps will do wonders.
* Forgo the elevator ... Your leg muscles will have to work harder to fight gravity.
* Rearrange your desk ... Putting things like your stapler, pens, even your phone out of arm’s reach means you need to get up to finish your task.
* Stand on the train or bus ... Even if you have a long commute, try to stand up about 10 minutes from your final stop. If practical, get off a stop or two early and walk.
* Raise your computer ... You don’t need to be on your feet the entire day, but if you have a couple of sturdy shelves that you can use to fashion your own stand-up desk system, it’s a good way to give your butt and back a break every two to three hours. (A quick Internet search results in several DIY ideas.)
WORRIED ABOUT RAISING EYEBROWS
We get it: Office land is often just an extension of junior high and peer pressure can put the brakes on the best health intensions. To that end, fitness expert Michele Stanten, an American Council on Exercise board member, says: “Get over it. As long as you’re meeting your work expectations, it shouldn’t matter if you’re frequently spotted walking the floor or sitting on a big ball.” If you’re concerned about what your boss might think, be proactive and find a good time to let him or her know what you’re planning. You might say something like, “I’ve been having some back problems/trying to lose weight and my doctor suggested I take short walking breaks and try using a ball at the office. Just wanted to give you the heads up and see if you had any concerns or questions.” Chances are more than one coworker will follow your lead.