How to stay active in the workplace

Millions of us have jobs that require us to sit at desks or around conference tables for several hours per day. Many health risks are associated with sitting down for prolonged periods — but how do we stay active in the workplace? We find out.

Research has demonstrated that sitting for an extended period is linked with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and an increased risk of death from heart disease and cancer.

Excessive sitting may also slow metabolism, which has an impact on the body's ability to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, as well as break down body fat.

Injecting physical activity into your working day could reduce some of the health risks that are elevated by being sedentary.

One study found that doing just 30 minutes of activity on 5 days each week — be it going to the gym, cycling to work, or going for a lunchtime walk — could prevent 1 in 12 deaths globally.

Being physically fit can also protect against some of the harms of stress in the workplace. Stress can lead to impaired mental well-being, depressive symptoms, and high blood pressure — all of which could lead to absences from work.

When working at a desk for 7–10 hours per day, finding opportunities to be active can be a challenge.

Medical News Today have compiled five top tips to help you stay active in your working day.

1. Cycle or walk to work

Depending on the location of your job and how far you work from home, try switching up how you get to and from work. Leave the car at home and cycle or walk instead.

Cycling to work is linked to a reduced risk of death from all causes.

When compared with commuting to work by car or public transport, cycling to work has been linked with a reduced risk of death from all causes, and a lower cancer risk.

Both cycling and walking to work have also been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Furthermore, people who walk or cycle to work have a lower body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage in midlife than those who commute by car.

Those who actively commute to work, by foot or by bike, also benefit from improved well-being and report feeling more able to concentrate and under less strain than those who travel to work by car.

Recent findings indicate that most people hop into their cars instead of actively commuting to work due to worries about the extra time that walking or biking will take. But, when asked to estimate how long it would take to walk or bike to a common location, a majority of participants were incorrect and overestimated.

If you are overweight and inactive, cycling to work is just as effective at helping you to lose fat mass as joining a gym, according to a study by the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

A morning ride to work could be just the tonic you're looking for if you'd like to lose weight but don't have the time or inclination to visit a fitness center regularly.

2. Stand up regularly

Something as simple as standing up now and then while at work could help curb the related health risks of sitting for too long.

Using a standing desk could help to improve cognitive function.

To reduce sedentary behavior and time spent sitting at work, guidance was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 by experts.

The team concluded that office workers should stand up for at least 2 hours during their work day, with that target eventually reaching 4 hours, to break up prolonged sitting.

Researchers believe that incorporating standing and walking behaviors into the work day might be more doable for workers than targeted exercise.

Recommended work-based standing behaviors include:

  • standing or light activity for 2–4 hours during work hours for workers who are mostly desk-based
  • using sit-stand desks or standing workstations to break up sitting-based work regularly
  • avoiding prolonged static standing, which can be just as harmful as sitting for too long
  • altering posture frequently to prevent potential musculoskeletal pain and fatigue

More and more businesses are adopting the use of sit-stand desks as more evidence comes to light on their benefits.

The University of Iowa in Iowa City discovered that employees who had sit-stand desks spent 60 minutes more standing per day and burned up to 87 more calories compared with their sitting counterparts. This amount could prove significant in fighting the obesity epidemic, note the researchers.

Another study reported that using a standing desk instead of a sitting desk for 6 hours of the day could help individuals to lose weight over time.

The findings showed that standing burned 0.15 calories per minute more than sitting — which, over the long-term, would equate to a 143.3-pound adult losing 5.5 pounds in 1 year and 22 pounds in 4 years, providing they did not increase their food intake.

Using standing desks has also been shown to have neurocognitive benefits. For example, students who continuously used standing desks experienced improvements in executive functions and working memory capabilities.

3. Move more

Moving more may sound like an obvious action to take when trying to be less sedentary, but, when in the depths of a taxing project, it's easy for many hours to fly by without any sign of movement.

Take the stairs rather than the elevator to incorporate exercise into your working day.

Research has found that for every extra hour of sitting over 5 hours, waist size increased by 2 centimeters and the risk of cardiovascular disease by 0.2 percent.

Low-density lipoprotein, or "bad," cholesterol increases and high-density lipoprotein, or "good," cholesterol decreases.

When questioned about their actual and desired levels of sitting, one study reported that desk-based employees wished to spend less time sitting and more time doing physical activity during their working day.

Even when you're sitting down, you don't need to necessarily sit still; fidgeting in your seat could make all the difference.

A study led by the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom suggested that small movements — such as those involved in fidgeting — might counteract some of the adverse effects of prolonged sitting.

Research has demonstrated that vascular function is impaired after 6 hours spent sitting at a desk. However, taking a walk around the office for 10 minutes after a long period of sitting down can restore vascular health.

Get movement into your working day by making a few simple changes.

  • Walk to a co-workers desk to speak with them instead of sending an email.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park your car a few blocks away from your work entrance.
  • Take the "scenic" route to your desk to fit in some extra steps.
  • Reorganize your desk so that you have to stand up and reach for any tools you regularly use.
  • Stand up to answer the phone or write emails.
  • Set an alarm to remind you to take a quick activity break.

4. Re-engineer the work environment

Incorporating physical activity into your working day has numerous health benefits, decreases work absence, and boosts cognitive abilities, mood, and productivity. Given all the positive outcomes of being less sedentary, your boss may be open to changing up the working environment to provide more options for movement.

Small desk movements can be encouraged by using a bounce ball to sit on.

Some firms are already offering stretch classes before work, yoga breaks during office hours, and lunchtime running groups to help workers to look after their well-being and increase work efficiency.

Many steps can be taken to re-engineer the office environment. These may include:

  • removing chairs and desk seating
  • encouraging walking meetings
  • creating walking tracks
  • introducing a pedometer program
  • using mobile sets instead of traditional phones
  • introducing games to the workplace
  • offering activity monitors
  • advising employees on activity and nutrition
  • adding desks with movement interventions, such as treadmills
  • sitting on bounce balls

A study that examined the effect of a re-engineered working environment found that in addition to workers losing weight and body fat, the company's revenue rose by nearly 10 percent in the first few months of the study.

There are no drawbacks to using desks with movement interventions. In fact, one professor from Clemson University in South Carolina revealed that using a FitDesk increased motivation and morale and improved problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity.

Even a small device, such as a portable pedal machine, could counter some of the harmful effects of sedentary working, according to a small study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

5. Take an active lunch break

Rather than eating your lunch at your computer while checking your smartphone and answering emails, take a break and do something physically active. You will go back to work feeling refreshed, revived, and more able to concentrate for the rest of the day.

Taking an active lunch break could help you go back to work refreshed and motivated.

Whether you go for a brisk walk, cycle, swim, or to your gym for an hour, doing exercise of any kind helps to break up your day and motivate you for your remaining hours in the office.

A study of more than 1 million people uncovered that being physically active for at least an hour each day may eliminate the increased risk of death related to sitting for 8 hours per day.

People who spent 8 hours each day seated but were physically active were less likely to be at risk of early death than individuals who sat for fewer hours but were inactive.

Workers who make time to engage in physical activity are also reported to be less likely to develop mental health deterioration, such as symptoms of depression and burnout, than those who do not engage in exercise.

People who were physically active for 4 hours per week were half as likely to experience problems with their mental health than physically inactive individuals.

No matter how you tackle staying active during your working day, it is important to remember that any movement at all, if only for 10 minutes, is better than staying still and not moving at all.

Start small with a 10-minute brisk walk each day and aim for three 10-minute brisk walks, or 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, on 5 days of the week.