In today's fast-paced work environment, sitting for hours on end has become the norm. While staying focused on the task at hand can instill a sense of accomplishment, you might also notice that it comes with a painful cost: back and aches, eye strain, wrist pain, and more.
Behind the veneer of productivity and hustle culture, this sedentary lifestyle presents a concerning reality: prolonged sitting can significantly impact your health and well-being. Thankfully, it’s easy to take steps to combat its negative effects, even while you’re in the office.
The Health Effects of a Sedentary Lifestyle
Multiple studies have linked excessive sitting to a plethora of health complications, including weight gain, chronic pain, heart disease, and a reduced lifespan.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health offers insights into physical exercise's influence on the health-related quality of life (HRQOL) among office workers. According to the findings, a sedentary lifestyle can not only impact one’s physical HRQOL, but also mental. While no form of exercise is a magic bullet for your sore neck and back, regular exercises — such as walking, yoga, aerobics, and strength, endurance, and flexibility training — help. This is especially true for those who don’t exercise consistently in the first place compared to those who work out a few times a week.
A Mayo Clinic meta-analysis of 13 studies further drives home these findings. Any regular, extended period of sitting can increase your risk of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancer. In fact, those who sit for eight hours a day without any physical activity have a risk of dying similar to that posed by smoking or obesity. Again, staying active is the key in counteracting the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
Maintaining Healthy Workspaces
According to the Mayo Clinic meta-analysis, one way to combat the effects of prolonged sitting is to incorporate 60 to 75 minutes of moderate to intense exercise every day. This doesn’t mean that you need to get up and get to the gym after a long day at work. Instead, try adding a little bit of movement into your day, especially if you’re not used to regular exercise.
This means taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes to stand, take a short walk around the office, or stretch. Try walking during meetings with colleagues instead of sitting down, or use your break for a leisurely stroll. It may not sound like much, but walking for just half an hour every day could burn an extra 100 calories a day according to a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. Your blood sugar levels also return to normal faster on days when you spend more time standing. And standing, rather than sitting, may also reduce the risk of shoulder and back pain.
If you have the option to work from home, try a standing desk. But, if you’re used to being mostly sedentary throughout the day, it’s important to take it easy — at least at first — so your proactive measures don’t end up having the opposite effect.
“Keep in mind that using a standing desk is like any other ‘intervention’ — it can come with ‘side effects,’” Robert H. Shmerling, MD, wrote for Harvard Health Publishing. “For example, if you suddenly go from sitting all day to standing all day, you run the risk of developing back, leg, or foot pain; it's better to ease into it by starting with 30 to 60 minutes a day and gradually increasing it.”
Beyond adding exercise to your day, an ergonomic work setup can go a long way when it comes to reducing the negative effects of too much sitting. CNET suggests investing in a keyboard or mouse cushion to combat wrist pain. An ergonomic office chair paired with a lumbar pillow can help improve your posture, thus helping alleviate or prevent neck and back pain.
When you’re typing away, ensure that your feet are resting flat on the floor — if they can’t reach, use a footrest. It’s equally important to make sure that you keep your wrists straight and shoulders relaxed and that your monitor is at eye level.
One should also never underestimate the power of staying hydrated. Water helps normalize your blood pressure, cushions the joints, regulates body temperature, and helps prevent headaches. According to Harvard Health Publishing, most people need four to six cups a day.
Reducing Eye Strain: Do Blue Light Blocking Glasses Work?
Staring at a screen all day is also bad for your eyes. While you might encounter ads for blue light blocking glasses that promise to save your eyes, a recent review of 17 studies published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews revealed that they likely don’t prevent or reduce strain.
However, adhering to the 20-20-20 rule for visual rest can prevent your eyes from focusing on a screen for hours on end, thus helping to reduce pain. It’s simple: every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds before going back to your work. This helps your eyes relax and can help prevent headaches.
A healthy mix of regular exercise, an ergonomic work setup, and conscientious workspace practices foster the overall well-being of office workers.
Embracing all of these can not only help mitigate the health risks inherently associated with extended periods of desk work but improve health overall. This concerted effort not only cultivates a healthier work milieu but also underscores the indispensable role of these practices in helping you have a more productive workday.