Your workplace undermines your health.
That’s the message of Jenny Evans, an exercise physiologist and performance coach based in Minneapolis who advises Fortune 500 companies and their employees how to counter the negative impact of the workplace.
She reminds them that our ancestors were very active, with food hard to come by. That led to bodies that even today are designed to conserve energy and store fat. “But now we are working and living in environments where movement has been designed out of our lives, and food, often high-caloric, is around us in large amounts,” she said in an interview.
The tendency to go without physical activity at work and store fat is our Achilles heel, she contends. We drive to work and sit in meetings or at our computer. We eat too much and then go for long periods without food as we’re in those meetings, rather than taking in nutrition every four hours as our bodies require.
The pressure at work and the lack of regular food intake stimulates stress hormones. Our ancestors might occasionally encounter danger, and the stress hormones that accompanied their fight-or-flight efforts were actually healthy, helping to deal with threats and dissipating quickly afterward. “But think of how often today we are exposed to stress. And we don’t have the activity to deal with it. We sit at our desks and stew in these stress hormones,” she said.
Unable to reset the system through activity and eliminate the stress hormones, we add fat deposits, particularly at the midsection. Our brain is also affected, in cognitive function and size. “When you are stressed out, you are literally out of your mind,” she said.
The answer isn’t just an hour at the gym after work but also short bursts of activity. “The fight-or-flight response was very short,” she observes. Research by the Orlando, Fla.-based Human Performance Institute found that when employees physically move at regular intervals throughout the day – as little as one to two minutes at a time, at least once every 30 minutes – they can reset themselves so that they feel less stressed and more energized. They were also more mentally focused, emotionally connected with others and engaged in their work – and more aligned with the organization’s mission. In a pilot program introducing short bursts of physical activity, 82 per cent of employees reported increased energy levels and an enhanced ability to focus.
Essentially, this adds the notion of interval training to our day. Athletes know that bursts of hard exercise not only improve cardiovascular fitness but also the body’s ability to burn fat. Indeed, Ms. Evans says 33 per cent more fat is burned in short bursts of activity than steady activity. At work, that means grabbing little intervals of 30 to 60 seconds when you might exercise. Instead of taking the elevator after your meeting, walk the two flights of stairs. Shut your door and enjoy some squats, or jump rope without a rope. Pick a parking spot further away from work. Opt for walking meetings or stand-up meetings, which some companies are now encouraging.
To help, in the office or at home, she has developed Hit The Deck, a series of 35 exercise cards with a programmable timer that you can use when you have a few moments. You pick from three intensity levels – no sweat, I’m glistening, or sweating buckets – and then pull a card from that portion of the deck, which will have exercises contoured to the time available. It also includes a six-week get started plan, but of course the principles can be applied without the assistance of her package.
She also urges you to watch your food intake, staying away from high-glycemic items, as well as trying to avoid alcohol, caffeine and smoking, since those stimulate the stress response in your body. Aim to get 25 per cent of your diet from lean protein, 50 per cent from fruit and vegetables, and 25 per cent from grains, ideally whole grains.
During the day, nosh on power snacks of 100 to 150 calories high in fibre, protein, and healthy fats. Just before our interview, she had just eaten an apple with peanut butter. She also recommends a few crackers and cheese, hummus, cottage cheese, or fresh fruits. Stuff nuts in your briefcase, desk drawer and pockets.
When travelling, plan ahead so that you remain healthy. Does the hotel have an exercise room? If not, it likely has stairs – sprint up them or take them two at a time. In your room, try squats, sit-ups, lunges, or jumping jacks. “If you have your body and gravity, that’s all you need to get your heart rate up,” she says. “There is always something you can do and something is better than nothing.”
Take a water bottle, nuts, and other snacks with you. Watch what you eat, and keep to your regular sleep schedule. She also stresses that your bed should be for sleeping, not for reading or watching TV. If the hotel room has two beds, use one to sit on for reading or watching TV and the other for sleeping.
Our ancestors, of course, lacked the problem of hotel rooms. They also lacked offices, which are our equivalent of the sabre-toothed tigers they had to deal with.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter