Death By Desk: How To Combat Sedentary Behavior At Work

Work-life balance is a popular topic, but equally as important is work-movement balance. If you want to avoid disease and improve your mind, you need to combat sedentary behavior at work. Unfortunately, physical activity has become the antithesis of productivity in many modern workplaces. Here’s how to structure your day to stay active and productive at the same time.

Acknowledge The Imbalance of Knowledge Work 

There’s a curious thing about modern knowledge work: It completely upsets the natural balance between mental and physical activity — Too much mental stimulation; Not enough physical stimulation. 

Signs of an overactive mind and an underused body include:

  • Agitation 
  • Anxiety 
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Rumination
  • Fatigue and brain fog 
  • An inability to “turn off” at night 

If you’re feeling this way, it’s important to acknowledge the impact sedentary work is having on your body. Don’t leave it up to chance to see if things get better. Take charge of your own health and decide you want something different for yourself.

Although numerous research studies have found that too much sitting is bad for your body, the good news is that it doesn’t take a herculean effort to break up your sitting with other activities. One recent study from the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism aimed to see if frequent activity breaks from sitting (FABS) would improve blood sugar regulation. Each day, participants received smartwatch notifications to break sitting with 3 min of low-to-moderate-intensity physical activity twice an hour. 

The results were clear, activity breaks reduced fasting blood glucose levels and improved other metabolic markers. Not surprisingly, they found that larger volumes of activity promote greater health benefits. But even 3min every half-hour seemed to make a difference. This may represent the minimal dose of movement necessary for combating sedentary behavior at work.

Do you have 6 minutes an hour to get up and move? 

My guess is you do have 6 minutes to stand and move. If not, you might be predisposing yourself to all sorts of health issues, such as insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, blood clots, fragile bones, inflammation, and even an increased risk of certain cancers. 

Not only does too much sitting impact your physical health, but it also disrupts the delicate balance of glucose and neurotransmitters in your brain. You may notice a lack of focus or decline in mental energy after longs periods of sitting. Your brain developed over millennia to help move your body through the environment. Movement has and always will be an essential part of brain function. Without it, your nervous system may become sluggish, rigid, and less adaptable.

Build Small Daily Movement Habits

Even if you exercise regularly, you can still miss the benefits of frequent activity breaks from sitting (FABS). In fact, too much sitting is not the same as too little exercise. According to researcher Dr. Paul Batman, “It is possible to meet the current national exercise guidelines and still be sedentary.” Working out once a day is not enough to overcome the side effects of sitting the remaining hours. 

The key is to start small adding in little bits of movement and go from there. Remember, 3 minutes every half-hour of walking up the stairs or doing some squats or jumping jacks is an effective place to start. Even standing rather than sitting is associated with better insulin sensitivity and metabolic health.

If you don’t have a watch or wearable device that tracks your steps, consider getting one to nudge you to meet basic movement goals. Set a timer on your phone to go off every 30 minutes to remind you to get up. Schedule “movement snacks” into your calendar at least once an hour. These aren’t intended to be a full workout, but a small dose of effort to get your blood moving and muscles contracting.

 Consider the following creative ways to get out of your chair and engineer movement into your day:

Think of these as an investment in your future self. It’s the little daily choices that make all the difference in your health. You can thank yourself when you’re feeling better after moving around. No one ever regrets taking a walk or stretching for a few minutes.

How To Overcome Sedentary Behavior & Move More

A lot of times getting up to move your body when you’re in the middle of something seems unproductive. “I don’t have enough time,” one part of your brain says. “Moving is in conflict with my desire to get things done,” this voice continues. “I can’t just workout whenever. The expectation is that I should be at my desk working.”

However diligent this mindset, when you look closely at its rationale, the dichotomy between movement and work unravels. There is time to move your legs if you make it. You can be productive and still physically active. Slack notifications can wait while you do a few squats. Team messages can wait while you walk a flight of stairs. It’s a matter of priorities and challenging the status quo.  

Don’t tell yourself you’re taking a break from work. Tell yourself you’re taking a break for work. Moving now is in service of better focus later.

Those minutes you spend away from your desk and computer often create exponential returns for your mood, energy, and focus. Movement breaks during the day can actually increase your productivity compared with slogging through hours at your desk. Don’t tell yourself you’re taking a break from work. Tell yourself you’re taking a break for work. Movement breaks create better focus.

Another important consideration for combating sedentary behavior is whether you think of yourself as an exerciser. Your identity plays a huge role in shaping your daily habits. For instance, do you think of yourself as a good worker? Do you also think of yourself as someone who takes good care of your body? Can you do both?

Absolutely yes!

If you don’t see yourself as the type of person who makes a point to stay healthy, then you’ll always put work first and resist movement. Create an identity that says you have what it takes to stay fit and be a good worker. Ask, “What would a healthy employee do now?” and follow suit. 

Combating Sedentary Behavior At Work Requires Cultural Change 

Employers don’t want me to say this, but if your work environment is slowly killing you, it might be time to switch jobs. I recognize this is a privileged position to take. Not everyone can afford to leave their job or ask their work to improve their employee wellness. However, at the end of the day, no amount of daily hacks can ameliorate a toxic work environment and sedentary culture. 

Start by controlling what is under your control: your reactions to your situation. Set boundaries with taking on more work and protect your time and energy. Yes, you do need to prioritize your own health and wellness, which might at times go against some other work goal. Learning how to leverage mindfulness or exercise to help manage stress is another essential activity. 

And, you also need to demand higher-level structural change. If you don’t actually shift the culture, expectations, and work environment to make taking care of yourself possible, then no healthy habit will stay for long.

Ask your employer if wellbeing is truly a priority. If not, it might be time to ask yourself and your leaders some tough questions. If you don’t take responsibility for your health, who will? 

Start by standing and moving more. Combating sedentary behavior at work doesn’t have to be hard, it just has to be consistent. Perhaps encouraging coworkers to walk with you and discuss how you support each other in being healthy is the easiest place to start.

Get up, get out, get moving — together.

~ Jeff Siegel

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Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel, M.Ed, is a health and wellness coach, Harvard University mindfulness instructor, and personal trainer.

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