Stay in Shape at Work

It's not difficult to stay in shape at your business. Learn how the editor of America's Best dropped some pounds without visiting the gym.

Not long after my wedding last summer, I received an electronic scale as a gift from a coworker with the message “Here’s a better way to watch the pounds” attached. As I looked past the letter and down at my belly plopping over my belt line, I couldn’t help but wonder: What happened? Only a couple of months earlier, I had been slipping into thin jeans and wearing size small T-shirts that looked big on me at times.

The easiest answer is that I had gotten a desk job. Instead of prowling the streets of Chicago and walking a minimum of three miles a day just to do my everyday business as I once did, I was now spending over nine hours of my day in front of a computer, only getting up to refill my water bottle. I no longer walked or took the train to work; instead, I drove, and the longest walk of my day often became the brief walk to my car after work. Also, I didn’t change my diet. Despite my sedentary lifestyle, I was still eating largely whatever I wanted to eat whenever I wanted to. Two months after I received the scale, the numbers were still going up. Certainly, the desk job had removed some of my previous opportunities for being constantly on the move; but it turns out there may be more to it than that.

A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Diabetes suggests that, in addition to generally fueling a lifestyle that involves low levels of activity, making unwise food choices for the sake of convenience and coming home too lethargic to really want to do much of anything, desk jobs are dangerous to your fitness level in part because of the physical act of sitting.
The study, which involved animal subjects as well as human subjects, showed that after prolonged periods of sitting, the enzymes responsible for burning fat simply shut down, leaving the body in a sort of “standby” mode that gives that fat no choice but to build up in undesirable areas—among them, the kidneys and other vital organs.

According to researchers, people can avoid lapsing into that mode by simply getting up and moving around from time to time during their workday. Puttering about occasionally rather than sitting constantly, they concluded, is a healthier way to work. Realizing that they may be on to something, I have taken this idea and applied it to my own workday. I’d like to share with you my own techniques for breaking my sitting routine.

Walk Around

If the idea of repeatedly standing and fidgeting at your desk or counter makes you worry that your co-workers will think you’re waiting on some sinister catastrophe or have suddenly contracted a stomach bug, you’re not alone. I myself happen to work much more effectively, especially when writing, if I’m pacing around and gesturing. I have suppressed that tendency, however, in order to avoid disturbing my co-workers and looking like a loon. People who have private offices are much more fortunate in that regard; unfortunately, my need to work close to my staff doesn’t afford me that luxury.

Instead, I recommend developing purposeful methods for getting out of that chair. These can help to make you a more energetic worker as well. If you need to discuss something in person with a co-worker, don’t e-mail her to ask when she’s available—take a walk over to her and ask. If someone stops by and wants to know where they keep the whatever, don’t give him a long explanation about the whatever’s location—get up and show him. You’ll provide more satisfactory service and develop better relationships—and kick those enzymes back into gear. By whatever means possible, you should avoid a scenario in which you spend your entire morning in “standby” mode, go out and get a regrettable, bloating lunch, and then retreat right back to your desk or counter and resume “standby” mode.

Snack Well

And about that bloating lunch: The American Medical Association and the American Heart Association, among many others, recognize that snacking on nutritious foods in small portions throughout the day can be more beneficial than eating a few big meals, especially for people who don’t exercise much.

To counteract the negative effects of a counter or desk job on your fitness, find a way to combine and work toward these two principles: Munching small portions of food throughout the day is better than eating one big meal, and moving around at intervals is better than prolonged periods of sitting.

My wife, who admittedly has a much higher metabolism and a much smaller bladder than I do, usually skips her lunch break in favor of getting up several times throughout the day to hunt for tea and munchies in the office kitchen or to walk up a flight of stairs to use the next-floor bathroom. I personally bring a small bag of nuts and eat them one by one to keep my stomach busy and my mind off Big Macs, and reserve my lunch break for walking across the parking lot to browse the nearby bookstore. In the meantime, most of my standing breaks, when they don’t involve actual business, consist of walking to the cooler and refilling my water bottle.

Drink Lots of Water

Getting up for water is of twofold benefit, of course, because it combines the act of getting up with satiating your stomach and all the countless wonderful benefits of drinking water. It’s very, very difficult to drink too much water, and the majority of us don’t drink nearly enough. In fact, I read recently that the sensation of thirst in most Americans is so diminished that it’s often mistaken for hunger. Also, the more water you make yourself drink, the easier it becomes to drink more until you’ve developed a healthy craving for it, as my bottle and I can now attest.

Dine Well

As for the kinds of foods one should be eating, I’m not a dietician, but I have noticed the dangers of artificial snacks that claim to be “low in fat” or “reduced calorie.” Many of those are only relatively healthy in certain areas as compared with their infamously-unhealthy counterparts. Baked chips, pretzels, or crackers, for instance, may be healthier than potato chips; but really, anything is healthier than potato chips. The “healthy” substitutes may still contain high levels of salt or carbohydrates and leave you feeling bloated and sluggish, not to mention under-satisfied. Even low fat yogurt is usually loaded with sugar in order to make it, well, tolerable to eat. As a general rule, it’s best to stick with simple foods.

Raw vegetables are of course a no-brainer, and if you can keep yourself happy all day with a veggie tray, by all means have at it. But as my wife will tell you, getting me to eat anything that looks like it’s had casual contact with a vegetable is somewhat akin to wrestling cough syrup down the gullet of a mountain lion. The same is true for a number of other foods that are supposed to be acceptable for me to eat. When I began this article, I was going to include a list of healthy snacks to keep sedentary workers busy and satiated throughout the day, as recommended by one or more reputable health journals. When I began to compile the list, however, I found myself thinking, “Aw, heck—I wouldn’t eat half this stuff myself. Why should I subject my readers to it?” Therefore, I have decided that the principle itself is best to share, and from there, you can look at any health journal article on healthy snacking and choose foods you can actually live with to make a list of your own.

After adopting these simple practices at work, I’ve noticed a big difference in my ability to adhere to other dietary recommendations when I come home from work. I hope you find them useful while you’re still at your desk.

As for me, I can proudly say that employing the methods above has made a big difference in my ability to stay fit while working a full time job. This morning, I looked at the scale my co-worker gave me, and I am proud to report that the numbers are still going down.

7 Quick Tips to Promote Health Habits at Work

Around 30% of the calories burned per day by an average person are lost through the simplest of activities, from walking across a room to simply lifting an arm. By staying in motion, you can help keep your body it without committing to a gym or exercise routine. Here are some simple things you can do to keep the calories burning while at work.

  1. Turn off your TV. Simply directing your attention elsewhere is often enough to make you more active.
  2. Perform regular inventory. You’ll burn calories and be more efficient.
  3. Make sure you park your car at least five minutes away from where you work.
  4. Use the stairs whenever possible. Avoid conveniences such as elevators and escalators.
  5. Keep your wastebasket as far away from your counter or desk as possible.
  6. Clean the interior of your business yourself.
  7. Take the time to assist your customers. You’ll gain their respect and keep your body in shape in the process.

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Reader Comments

Friday, February 12, 2010 at 11:10 AM
anonymous says:
Excellent article! Thank you!
Friday, March 7, 2008 at 10:40 AM
Brad Rhoads says:
Or how about using a treadmill mill desk? The idea, developed by a Dr. @ Mayo is to build a desk around a treadmill and walk (at ~ 1MPH) all day while you work. Here's a bunch of info I've collected:

Social network I just started about this:

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