#035 How to Survive Sedentary Work: 10 Tips

How to Survive Sedentary Work: 10 Tips

Sitting is the new smoking. Physical inactivity now kills as many people each year as smoking tobacco.

In fact, sitting more than 3 hours a day takes two years off of your life. This is particularly worrisome considering the average American sits 8-9 hours each day.

If you come home after a long day at work and then sit in front of the television to relax or watch the news, you will be interested to know that TV watchers lose up to 5 years of life or 22 minutes of life for every one hour spent watching TV!

Most of us report that we are “active” or are getting enough “exercise.” However, if you actually track people with a pedometer, you will find that only 1 in 20 Americans actually moves enough according to government standards.

Estimates from government surveys indicate that people’s sedentary time outside of work has increased by about 40% between 1965 and 2009. Thus, not only are we sitting at work we are now sitting when we go home at night. We need to move more at work and move more at home.

The New York City Walking Culture

People in New York City live an average of 4 years longer than the rest of the United States. This may seem counter-intuitive given the challenges of living in a big city, however, a main reason for New Yorkers’ longevity is the strong walking culture.

Owning a Car is Hazardous to Your Health

Many studies show that owning a car is hazardous to your health, not only due to the toxic fumes, but because of the excessive sitting.

One large medical study found that men who ride in a car more than 10 hours per week are 82% more likely to die from heart disease than those who ride less than 4 hours per week.

Working Out and an Office Job

Even more frightening are the findings of recent studies showing that even if you exercise hard at the gym every day, you cannot undo the harmful effects of sitting or sedentary work. This caught me by surprise as I had always considered exercise as a way to “undo” any bad habits like sitting too long or eating too much.

Indeed, having an office job and sitting most of the day puts you at high risk for weight gain, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

Our excessive sitting as a society has led to a condition called “Sedentary Death Syndrome.”  What is this sedentary death syndrome and what can we do to survive our office jobs, commutes, and the gravitational pull towards our televisions?

My Story

A big part of my job as a cardiologist is performing procedures for my patients. Because we work in an x-ray environment, we have a heavy lead suit that we wear all day long.

I was overweight at the time and had an undiagnosed autoimmune disease, Ankylosing Spondylitis.  My back used to kill me wearing a heavy lead suit all day long performing procedures. At the time, I thought it was simply my heavy lead suit that caused my back pain, and never explored other potential causes.

Hence, very early in my career I started sitting all day long while performing these complex cardiac procedures. This helped my back pain but then led to even worse neck pain, knee pain, and hip pain from poor posture from sitting and the biomechanical effects of sitting all day long.

Amazingly, all of my pain has resolved and my autoimmune disease has even gone into remission, once I attacked the root of the problem–my “Standard American Diet” (SAD).  This SAD diet caused me to be overweight, created inflammation throughout my body, and allowed my autoimmune disease to develop and progress.

Fortunately, I was able to reengineer my “day of sitting” before I developed other chronic conditions–possibly diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Our understanding that sitting is dangerous is a relatively new finding. It wasn’t that long ago that sitting was considered “healthy.”

Train Driver and Conductor Study

In the early 1950’s, there was still skepticism that being physically active could protect against developing heart disease. This skepticism began to change when Dr. Jeremy Morris and his colleagues studied London transport workers. What he found was illuminating.

They looked at two different sets of people who worked side-by-side for years. One group was physically inactive–the drivers (sedentary work), and the other group was busy walking all day long–the conductors. What they found was that even though these two groups of people working together were essentially the same, the drivers had a 42% higher incidence of heart disease.

The only difference between the drivers and the conductors was that the drivers sat all day long, whereas the conductors walked all day long collecting tickets. Since the publication of this study in 1953, we now know that moving helps to not only protect us against heart disease but many other chronic diseases as well. Again, with this knowledge, we have to ask ourselves why it is so hard for so many of us to get moving.

Sitting in China’s Longevity Village

The traditional lifestyle in China’s Longevity Village is very different than here in the U.S.. People historically did not sit. They were too busy working in the fields and gathering food all day.

In fact, the people in the Village do not even sit to use the bathroom. They squat over a pit.

In doing that, they employ major muscle groups in their legs. Indeed, based on the Bama Centenarian Study, a study of all of the centenarians living in Bama County, China, the county where the Longevity Village resides, 97% can still use a squat toilet.

This is quite amazing since most American adults I have encountered while living or travelling in China, lack the lower extremity muscle strength to do so. We are accustomed to sitting even while using the bathroom.

Ten Ways to Stay Healthy with Sedentary Work

If you’ve got a desk sentence job, you have to sit, right? Wrong! Sedentary work doesn’t have to be sedentary at all! One of the encouraging bits of news is that it doesn’t take a lot of time to combat the negative effects of sitting.

A number of studies demonstrate that short breaks during long periods of sitting can work wonders. Those studies demonstrate that simply taking a several minute break from sitting each hour can lower body mass index, triglyceride levels and improve glucose tolerance—all important measures for combating obesity and maintaining a healthy metabolism free from diabetes.

Here are my 10 tips to counteract the debilitating effects of sitting:

1. Wear a pedometer

It sounds simple but studies show that you will unconsciously walk more than one extra mile each day just by wearing a pedometer. To learn more about the pedometers I recommend, including free options, please visit my resource page.

2. Schedule standing or walking meetings

Steve Jobs was famous for having walking meetings as he felt it increased creativity. Many corporations have now taken chairs out of conference rooms. It ensures meetings end on time and employees are healthier.

3. Use a headset to take phone calls while pacing

If you need to jump on a conference call, try walking outside for the call. If it is too noisy outside or the weather doesn’t cooperate, try taking your call while pacing in an empty conference room, your office, or even the cafeteria.

4. Use a standing desk

You can burn up to 50 extra calories each hour just by using your standing desk. It doesn’t seem like much but it will help to strengthen your legs and will improve your posture.

You don’t have to have anything fancy. Even if your employer cannot help you, this it can even be done for free with a left over cardboard box.

5. Take a walk on your lunch break

Walking on your lunch break is great but even better than walking alone is to take a walk with a coworker.

6. Use a bike desk or a treadmill desk

If you have a private office, bring your old treadmill or bike from home and create a treadmill desk or bike desk. Even better, get your employer to buy you one. You can see the bike desk and treadmill desk I put together for free with some random supplies in my home.

7. Walk or bike to work

I often have very long days at the hospital and there is absolutely no time to exercise without compromising sleep or family time. In my struggle to find time to exercise on these days, I have now starting biking to work.

8. Commit to taking a break from sitting every 30-60 minutes

Studies show that you simply need to get up and walk for five minutes every hour. There is even a “stand app” now for the iPhone which will remind you to get up and move if you have been sitting too long.

9. Replace the sofa in your TV room with exercise equipment

This is a tip I have learned from many of my patients. As they have replaced their sofas with exercise equipment their health has dramatically improved and the extra weight has melted away. Commit to move with these activities for guilt-free TV relaxation.

10. Schedule a daily family walk or hike

Even kids need to get moving more. We love our walks or hikes when we can get them. It brings our family together. As we no longer have cable or satellite TV service in our home, this has become one of our favorite family activities.

If you don’t have kids at home, then going for a walk with a spouse or friend after dinner will not only improve your health but your relationship as well.

Your challenge this week is find some creative ways to build movement into your daily routine.  Please share your ideas and experiences in the comment box below!

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Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.

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