Is Your Desk Job Bad For Your Health?

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Sharon Gavin used to spend all day on her feet. Now she has a full-time desk job -- and the transition has been a painful one.

In 2002, after 12 years as a nurse, Gavin took a new job that requires her to spend the bulk of her day in front of a computer screen. The switch to a more sedentary work life has left her with nerve pain in her neck, back and left shoulder.

"This is too much sitting; that was too much standing," says Gavin, 57, a patient safety specialist at a pharmaceutical company in Wilmington, Delaware.

Gavin's problems aren't uncommon. The hazards of sitting all day long -- whether you're staring at a computer screen at work or watching TV on the couch at home -- are better understood now than ever. In recent years, researchers have linked too much sitting to back pain, repetitive stress injuries, obesity and even an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

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So what's a desk jockey to do? If quitting your job and applying to become a park ranger isn't in the cards, there are a number of other steps you can take to stay healthy at work. For instance, you could improve your workspace ergonomics, swap your office chair for an exercise ball, or ask your employer for a treadmill desk (really).

But the first step is to get moving. Stretching your legs and moving around for just five minutes each hour is enough to do a body good (although more activity is even better).

"As long as you have a way to get your body into multiple positions throughout your workday, that's really the solution that you should be looking for," says Katy Bowman, an expert on biomechanics and the director of the Restorative Exercise Institute, in Ventura, Calif. "It doesn't have to be expensive."


What's so bad about sitting?

Studies suggest that sitting for hours on end -- regardless of calorie intake and exercise -- is harmful. This may be because immobile muscles lose the ability to metabolize fats and sugar as efficiently as they should, which could promote high cholesterol and up diabetes risk.

As far back as the late 1950s, a study found that people with sedentary jobs (bus drivers) were twice as likely as those with active jobs (mailmen) to develop cardiovascular disease. More recently, extended daily TV watching and time on the computer--which, like desk jobs, involve long periods of time sitting still -- have been linked to a greater risk of metabolic syndrome, a constellation of health problems that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

In addition, poor workplace habits can bring on aches, pains, and other troubles that can be disabling, in some cases. Sitting all day can flatten out the curve of the lower back, for instance, and can put a strain on the upper body, shoulders and arms.

How to get moving

Exercising outside of the workday can help keep you in shape, but you shouldn't rely solely on an after-hours workout to save you.

"If you're sitting eight to 12 hours a day and you're taking a one-hour yoga class, it's not enough," says Bowman. "Exercise isn't saving us because the ratio is not in our favor." She recommends packing in more movement by taking several breaks throughout the day -- even for just 10 to 15 minutes at a time -- to stretch and walk.

Good posture is also important for avoiding stress and strain at work, according to Julie Côté, PhD, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at McGill University, in Montreal, who studies workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders. She recommends exercise programs like Pilates and the Alexander Technique, an alternative medicine discipline focusing on coordination and freedom of movement, which can help build body awareness and better posture. But, she says, "one seven-week program is not going to cure you forever."

According to Bowman, maintaining flexibility is also important -- and something that's best practiced on the job.

"Even if you cross your leg while you're sitting in the chair and lean forward, that's a hip opener; that's what you go to yoga class for," she adds. "No one is saying that you have to sit glued in your chair. You can cross a leg, you can spinal twist, you can stretch your calf, you can stand up."

Try an ergonomic makeover

After she started developing pain, Gavin went to physical therapy to strengthen her muscles. Additionally, she sought help from an in-house ergonomic program run by her employer, AstraZeneca.

"They actually have a therapist who comes out to your desk and assesses you," she says. After observing that Gavin's bifocals were straining her neck by forcing her to move her head up and down, the therapist ordered her a 20-inch computer monitor with an adjustable arm.

The therapist also adjusted Gavin's chair so that she would have better lumbar support and told Gavin she needed to take breaks from sitting every 20 minutes. "Any opportunity I can, I move and walk and I get up and stretch," Gavin says.

Workstation adjustments like those that the AstraZeneca therapist offered Gavin can definitely help, says Côté. "It's good to vary what you're seated on, but then the surface that you're working on also needs to be adjusted to it," she says.

Sit-stand stools that allow people to sit or lean on them can also be good, while balance balls can help too, she adds. "You always keep your back muscles in sort of a state of awakening so it just keeps you active more during that time." And chairs with seats angled forward (and a support below so you don't go sliding off) can also hold the lower back in a healthier curve.

Should you go high-tech?

What about walking while you're working? You can shell out $4,200 for a Walkstation, a low-speed commercial-grade treadmill with a desk attached. You can also make your own treadmill desk; there are a host of blogs by work-walking aficionados ready to offer advice, and even a social network of work-walkers called Office Walker.

When Walkstation first came out, in 2007, several companies gave it a whirl, including GlaxoSmithKline, Best Buy, and Humana. "We did pilot them here," says Joseph Henry, MD, senior director of health and well-being at AstraZeneca. "There was a lot of initial excitement."

But for a company that takes pride in its employee health and wellness resources, Dr. Henry adds, this approach didn't seem like the right way to go. "We thought it might send the message that you're not to leave your desk, you're chained to your desk. We'd rather that they actually get up from their desk and take a break from their work instead of being stuck at their desk all day."

When they have to work at their desks, AstraZeneca's employees can request an exercise ball to sit on. They're also free to take walks around the company's 150-acre campus, Dr. Henry says, and are encouraged to hold meetings while walking.

Gavin is also making a point of getting to the company's on-site gym three times a week.

"I've found that the more I move, the better I get," Gavin says. "If you're sitting it's just not normal because your body wants to move; we're made to move."