Being smart and efficient, you probably have streamlined your office so that commonly used items like staplers, calculators, paper clips, and filing cabinets are right by your desk. If you're lucky, you manage to scoop up a parking space for your car close to the office each day, and avoid wasting time walking.
Time to rethink all of that.
Personal trainer and wellness coach Kent Burden says if you want to improve your health, you should place some of those commonly used objects far enough away from your desk that you have to walk to get them. If you're truly smart, you'll seek a parking spot that increases your distance to the office. You should abandon the large water bottle or giant coffee mug you keep close at hand and opt for a smaller size, forcing you to get up frequently to refill.
"The human body was made to move," he said in an interview from his office in Ventura, Calif. When we sit, studies show we set ourselves up for a variety of health afflictions, from cardio-vascular disease to diabetes. We need to weave movement throughout our days spent sitting at computers, reading reports and attending meetings.
In an agricultural society, work involved movement. Thirty years ago, office workers got up frequently to talk to colleagues or photocopy important documents. These days, we sit, entrenched in work – and deteriorating health.
Mr. Burden is no stranger to rethinking his own life. He broke his back in a college football game and was paralyzed for nine months from the waist down, aimless and angry until a physiotherapist kindled some desire to engage in life and introduced him to meditation and yoga.
Years later, working in wellness at a California spa frequented by celebrities, he was enraged at an article he read in Men's Health magazine that dared to suggest constant exercise weaved through the day was at least as important if not more vital than the 30- to 60-minute exercise sessions he guided. But when he called the researchers to complain, they proved they were right, and now he is spreading their gospel through his consulting at corporations and his recent book The Office Workout: 75 Exercises to do at Your Desk and a prior effort, Is Your Chair Killing You?
The easiest step – and step is a fitting word – is to make things a little less comfortable in your office. Place regularly used items in an area where you have to get up to reach them. If you're unlucky enough to have a printer on your desk – yes, unlucky – move it further away. Always stand up and pace when on the phone. Fidget when sitting for more than 20 minutes and chew sugarless gum for the physical activity. Invite colleagues on walking meetings and grab the opportunity to stroll to a colleague's desk rather than e-mail.
Consider buying a small under-the-desk seatless exercise cycle that you can use while working; you can pick one up from $40 to $150. Many people are trying standing desks, but he warns that standing has its own disadvantages, since it can affect your posture and lead to varicose veins. He prefers a hydraulic sit-stand desk, which you can adjust during the day to spend time on your feet and on your fanny. His wife created one for 50 cents, using an apple crate purchased at a garage sale to elevate her computer monitor. But fancier models can be obtained from various suppliers (he recommends Ergotron.)
He also advocates exercising at your desk, after obtaining permission from your boss. He finds senior management open to such exercises because they recognize the costs to the company of workers who are decaying through sitting. The top officials can be persuaded that employees who break away from intense work every now and then energize their body and mind, thus improving rather than reducing productivity. But often middle managers are less receptive, feeling if you aren't focused on your monitor, you are being unproductive. So it may take some convincing, based on the arguments in his books or his free online guide for bosses.
The microexercises are carried out at your desk or near it, about three to five minutes every hour. They engage the erector muscles, which can take a lot of fat and sugar out of the body when aroused, providing significant health impact. The exercises can be fairly simple – just pushing your hands together or doing some tai chi-like movements. Or you can use an exercise ball and tension pulls.
Don't disturb others with your workout. This is not the place for grunting. Make sure you aren't exercising when clients are in the office, which would be off-putting. Pick exercises that keep you from sweating or smelling. And don't abuse the privilege your manager has given you by trying this stuff every 10 minutes.
His books have various exercises to choose from. A simple but effective one is the chest squeeze: Sitting tall and upright in your seat, with your core muscles engaged and spine elongated, bring both hands in front of your chest, with palms together and elbows pointing outward. Squeeze the palms together as hard as you can for 30 seconds, before resting and repeating. He likes this one since it counters the fact most of us don't get enough strength exercise and "it's super-unobtrusive – nobody knows what you're doing."
He also cites the chair squat, which begins by sitting on the chair with feet hip distance apart and knees aligned directly over your ankles. Again sit up tall, bringing your arms out in front of you at shoulder height with the palms of your hands pointed in toward the centre line of the body. Stand, then drop the buttocks down as if to sit, trying to keep as much weight off the chair as you can when coming down to the seated position. Aim for at least 10 of these squats. Since you're just quietly standing up and sitting down, once again it's not noticeable to others.
If you're chained to your desk all day, inactive in body while the mind is whirling, you may want to try his advice.
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