Inactivity and sitting have received a lot of attention in the media for their adverse effects on health (here are a couple of posts: Forbes, Huffington Post, Inc, Time). Although the health benefits of regular exercise are well known, many people do not get the recommended amount of exercise per week. This post will focus on why being inactive and sedentary are deleterious to your health and how to decrease your sedentary time at work.
Let’s first breakdown activity levels. There are three different activity categories that we will use: (1) sedentary, (2) light activity, and (3) moderate-intense activity. The standard metric used to quantify the energy demands of an activity is a MET (metabolic equivalent of task).
- Activities that use less than 1.5 METs are considered sedentary behavior. Activities that fall into this category include sitting, watching TV, sleeping, and desk work.
- Light activities are those that are between 1.6-3.0 METs. These would be light movements, walking, and light chores.
- Moderate-to-intense activities are activities above 3.1 METs. Obviously there are a lot of activities that fall into this category. Jogging, swimming, cycling, and lifting weights are some of the major activities in this category. When you hear that you should be exercising 150 minutes per week, they are talking about activities in this category.
For being active at work, the focus is on increasing the time spent doing light activities and decreasing the about of sedentary behavior. There are two main reasons to support why decreasing your amount of sedentary behavior is beneficial.
1. The amount of sedentary behavior is associated with increased risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality in both men and women.
While some will try to undo the sedentary behavior by going to the gym, the research suggests that this isn’t enough. One study compared two groups of people. One group exercised 7 hours a week and also watched >7 hours of television while another group also exercised 7 hours a week but only watched <1 hour of television. The study found that the group that watched >7 hours of television had a 50% greater risk of death from all causes and twice the risk from cardiovascular disease compared to the group that watched <1 hour per week. The authors concluded that while exercise is important, minimizing the amount of sedentary behavior is also important for overall health.
2. Prolonged sedentary behavior changes your body chemistry
There have been several studies looking at the effects of sitting and body chemistry (mainly insulin). One study took health individuals and measured insulin sensitivity after one day of prolonged sitting (17 hours. I know, a lot of sitting) and compared them to other activities levels. After only one day of prolonged sitting, the researchers observed whole body insulin sensitivity! The authors concluded that light intensity activities could help minimize the harmful effects of prolonged sitting.
Another study took groups of individuals and broke up prolonged sitting with 2 minutes of activity (the control group continued to sit, another walked, and the third group jogged during the 2 minute break). The authors found decreased insulin and glucose following a meal in the two activity groups compared to the control group. This suggests that light activity throughout the day can help normalize your body chemistry, although more research is needed for long term effects.
Now that we can see why being sedentary throughout the day is not good for your health, what can you do about it? Well, a common trend is to get a standing desk. This is a great option because it encourages you to move (it's still a good idea to keep moving even when you are standing). However, some people don’t have the option for a standing desk.
Here are 10 ways that you can starting moving more at work, whether you have a standing desk or not.
1. Squats - Squats are great because they encourage you to flex your hips beyond 90º, which we rarely do in our daily activities. Be sure to maintain a neutral spine through the movement and move through the hips. You can either hold the squat position for time or do a few reps.
2. Lunges - This is another exercise you can do a few reps of or you can hold. To add a little spice to your lunges, try to hold a lunge position with your back knee hovering just above the ground.
3. Lateral lunges - Here is a little spin on the normal lunge. Take a step to your side and bend your knee. Try to keep your shin vertical, as this will make you sit back into your hip.
4. Ladder climbs - Simple, yet effective. You can do this sitting or standing, but standing is the better option because it makes you get out of your chair. Alternating arms, reach up as high as you can like you are climbing a ladder.
5. Wall sits - Don’t you miss the burning feeling in your quads? Take a break from the chair and hold yourself up against a wall. Try to have your knees at 90º and hold as long as you can. (remember to have your back flat against the wall).
6. Wall angels - Most desk work encourages poor prolonged posture. Stand with your back against the wall and your forearms and back of your wrists touching the wall. Now move your arms as high up as you can go.
7. Arm circles - This is a classic warm up movement. Alternate between large and small circles. You can test your coordination by moving your arms in opposite directions… It’s harder than you think.
8. Brügger’s exercise - Think of this exercise as a reverse posture drill. You don’t need a band, but it works better with one. Spread your fingers apart, extend your wrists, rotate your shoulders out, then press your arms out. Reverse the movement slowly to return to the beginning
9. Mountain climbers - This is a great way to get your heart going a little bit. You don't have to do it for long like back in gym class, 10-20 seconds at a moderate pace will do.
10. Drinking more water - While not an exercise per se, it turns into one. Drinking more water does a few things. First, it obviously keeps you hydrated. Secondly, it will make you get up to get water and then get up again to use the bathroom. Either way, you have to break up your time sitting.
What are your favorite ways to get moving at work? Share your favorites in the comments below!