Tips for Staying Active in the Office to Counteract the Ills of a Sedentary Job

Story at-a-glance -

  • A growing body of evidence suggests that sitting in and of itself is an independent risk factor for poor health and premature death—even if you exercise regularly
  • To counteract the ill effects of sitting, simply standing up every 10 minutes or so is actually more effective than taking a walk. And, it’s not how long you stand up, but how many times you stand up that makes the difference
  • Making slight alterations to your individual work space can make a positive difference. Organize your office space in such a way that you have to stand up to reach oft-used files, the telephone, or your printer
  • Other alternatives include switching your office chair for an exercise ball or a straight-backed wooden chair without armrests, or alternating between sitting and using a standing workstation
  • To build more activity into your day, consider walking across the hall to talk to a coworker instead of sending an email, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and parking your car further away from the entrance

By Dr. Mercola

Nearly 70 percent of costs associated with health care are due to preventable conditions, and new research confirms that spending long hours sitting down during commuting and working can play a significant role in the development of chronic disease.

In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that sitting in and of itself is an independent risk factor for poor health and premature death—even if you exercise regularly. Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon the "active couch potato effect."

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) now lists inactivity as the fourth biggest killer of adults, responsible for nine percent of premature deaths1.

In the video above, Dr. Jeff Spencer shares his tips on how to stay active at the workplace.

Research by Dr. Joan Vernikos2, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division (one of the primary doctors assigned to keep the astronauts from deteriorating in space) and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, shows that your body actually needs to perpetually interact with gravity through motion in order to function optimally.

Interestingly, with regard to counteracting the ill effects of sitting, simply standing up every 10 minutes or so is actually more effective than taking a walk. And, it's not how long you stand up, but how many times you stand up that makes the difference.

How to Get More Active During Work Hours

A recent article in The Guardian3 offers several common sense tips for getting more movement into your day-to-day life, especially during work hours.

Using a pedometer will help you assess how many steps you take throughout your work day; then simply make a concerted effort to continuously increase the number of steps you take daily. Simple changes to the way you move about the office can add up, such as:

  • Walking across the hall to talk to a coworker instead of sending an email
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Parking your car further away from the entrance
  • Taking a longer, roundabout way to your desk

Another strategy that can help eliminate some of the sitting is to hold standing-only office meetings. This tends to discourage unnecessary discourse and make meetings more productive in less time. Making slight alterations to your individual work space can also make a difference. For example, you can:

  • Organize the layout of your office space in such a way that you have to stand up to reach oft-used files, the telephone, or your printer, rather than having everything within easy reach. Ideally, you'll want to stand up at least once every 10 minutes, or more, so simply moving one or more things you frequently reach for could allow you to build this kind of movement into your regular work day.
  • Use an exercise ball for a chair. Unlike sitting in a chair, sitting on an exercise ball engages your core muscles and helps improve balance and flexibility. Occasional bouncing can also help your body interact with gravity to a greater degree than sitting on a stationary chair.
  • Alternatively, use an upright wooden chair with no armrest, which will force you to sit up straight, and encourage shifting your body more frequently than a cushy office chair.
  • Use a standing workstation. Standing rather than sitting while doing your work can also be a helpful option. For a demonstration on proper posture, whether you're sitting or using a standing workstation, check out Kelly Starrett's video in this previous article.

Mounting Evidence Indicts Sitting as Independent Risk Factor for Poor Health

In recent years, researchers have taken a serious look at the effects of inactivity, and have repeatedly found that not moving or engaging in very limited-range movements for extended periods of time has a profoundly negative impact on health and longevity. For example, a recent analysis4 of 18 studies (which in total included nearly 800,000 people) found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sat the least. And, while prolonged sitting was linked to an overall greater mortality risk from any cause, the strongest link was to death due to diabetes.

According to lead researcher Thomas Yates, MD5:

"Even for people who are otherwise active, sitting for long stretches seems to be an independent risk factor for conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease."

An earlier study6 highlighted much of the recent evidence linking sitting with biomarkers of poor metabolic health, showing how total sitting time correlates with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other prevalent chronic health problems—even if you exercise regularly. In other words, even if you're fairly physically active, riding your bike to work or hitting the gym four or five days a week -- you may still succumb to the effects of too much sitting if the majority of your day is spent behind a desk. According to the authors:

"Even if people meet the current recommendation of 30 minutes of physical activity on most days each week, there may be significant adverse metabolic and health effects from prolonged sitting -- the activity that dominates most people's remaining 'non-exercise' waking hours."

What I Now Do to Interrupt My Sitting

Dr. Vernikos' groundbreaking research into the health effects of anti-gravity situations may actually be among the most practical, as she has been able to determine what it is about uninterrupted sitting that robs you of your health, and what kind of movements will counteract this damage—and how much of it is required to make a difference. In essence, sitting prevents your body from interacting with and exerting itself against gravity. While not nearly as severe as the antigravity experienced by astronauts, uninterrupted sitting mimics a microgravity situation, which has the effect of accelerating the aging process.

Thankfully, Dr. Vernikos' research shows that simply standing up, about 35 times a day or so, will counteract the cardiovascular health risks associated with uninterrupted sitting. This is based on double-blind research where volunteers would spend four days in bed to induce detrimental changes. She then tested two groups to see which was more effective, walking or standing, and how long you would have to walk, or how many times you'd have to stand up to get better again. Her findings revealed that:

  • Standing up once every hour was more effective than walking on a treadmill for 15 minutes for cardiovascular and metabolic changes.
  • Sitting down and standing up repeatedly for 32 minutes does NOT have the same effect as standing up once, 32 times over the course of a day. To get the benefit, the stimulus must be spread throughout the day.

After reading Dr. Vernikos' book, Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, I was inspired to give some serious attention to this because even though I perform a lot of structured exercise, including high intensity interval training, I was guilty of sitting down a vast majority of the rest of the day. So what I've done is this: I found an online timer and set it to go off every 10 minutes. When it goes off, I stand up and do one of the following:

  • Four jump squats. (I thought of this after looking at a table of different activities that increase your exposure to gravity in her book. One of them was jumping up and down, which gets you up to six times gravity. Squatting is an extension of standing, so if you squat and stand, you can get the maximum benefit of working against the force of gravity. By adding jumping to it—going from a squat to a jump, landing into a squat again—you end up with about 6.5 Gs)
  • Stand up really slow and sit really slow five times doing a Foundation posture (which you can learn more about in this previous article), or
  • Four or five one legged squats, alternating legs each period and for the third round, squatting with both legs. This will also go a long way towards building your leg strength and costs you nothing but a few minutes of your time

Sedentary Lifestyle Linked to More Harmful Body Fat

Your level of day-to-day activity also influences the type of fat your body accumulates, with more sedentary lifestyles being linked to higher levels of "white fat"—a type of fat that is less metabolically active than so-called "brown fat." Brown fat is a heat-generating type of fat that burns energy instead of storing it, and this may have important implications when it comes to weight management. Previous research has shown that certain groups of people tend to have more brown fat than others, and there are direct correlations between the activation of brown fat and metabolic measures of good health.

For example:

  • Slender people have more brown fat than obese people do
  • Younger people have more brown fat than elderly people, and
  • People with normal blood sugar levels have more brown fat than those with high blood sugar

Exercise, it turns out, helps transform white fat into healthier brown fat. Both mice and men participating in a recent study were found to respond to intense exercise in this way. As reported by Medical News Today7:

"The exercise regime had the men training on an exercise bicycle for 12 weeks and the mice running on an exercise wheel for 11 days. Compared to the original white fat caused by sedentary behavior, the new, browner fat, was much more metabolically active... Kristin Stanford, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, said: '... It's clear that when fat gets trained, it becomes browner and more metabolically active. We think there are factors being released into the bloodstream from the healthier fat that are working on other tissues.'

... Stanford says the findings provide even more motivation to go out and start exercising. Even if you don't lost weight, the study suggests that exercising will still train your fat to be more metabolically active and improve overall metabolism and health."

Keeping Active for Life

Avoiding sitting for long periods of time may at first seem "impossible" if you commute to a fulltime desk job, but really, all you need to do is alter the way you work and travel in small ways. For example, standing up every 10 minutes or so could easily compensate for the majority of the damage associated with sitting. Simply reorganizing your office space to be less convenient, forcing yourself to repeatedly get out of your chair, can help you build more physical movement into your workday.

It's important to realize that while modern technology has ushered in an era of previously unfathomed speed, connectivity and productivity, it comes at a big price if you're not careful about counteracting factors such as increased physical inactivity. The answer is quite simply to revert back to a lifestyle that incorporates natural movement, even if you have to devise "ploys" like moving your printer to the other side of the room, instead of having it on your desk within easy reach.

It's becoming increasingly clear that your body needs perpetual movement in order to function optimally, and this includes both non-exercise movements, and a more regimented exercise plan. In the case of the latter, exercises in which you use your body the way it was designed to be used is quite clearly the most powerful way to optimize your health and fitness. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is an example of this.

This type of Peak Fitness exercise mimics the way ancient hunter-gatherers used their bodies, and research has again and again confirmed that HIIT outperforms traditional aerobic cardio exercise. That said, I believe it's important to include a variety of exercises, as doing the same ones all the time will lead to a relative tolerance and will not provide your body with the variety of stresses it needs to continuously adapt, improve, and grow stronger. Four additional types that will turn your Peak Fitness regimen into a truly comprehensive exercise plan are:

  1. Aerobic
  2. Strength Training
  3. Core Exercises (including Pilates, yoga, and/or Foundation Training)
  4. Stretching