Health and Fitness: Work

ON THE JOB: It's not just the work that's wearing us down—it's the office space, too. Here's how to ease your pain. Check out all of our health and fitness coverage for more ways to live a healthy lifestyle.

Fifty years ago, half the jobs in the American workforce required moderately intense physical activity. Today, just 20 percent do. For too many of us, this means long stretches of time spent immobile in a chair. That may seem easier on the body than manual labor, but what it actually amounts to is an extended stress test. Our bodies weren’t designed to sit around all day, and many of us have the stiff necks, raised shoulders, and sore backs (a leading cause of disability among people under 50) to prove it. Moreover, a number of recent studies have shown that extended periods of inactivity can significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Simply put, the way we work may be killing us. So what’s a poor desk-bound employee to do? Here are a few suggestions. —Casey Lyons

Battle Stations

Quick fixes for your workspace.

healthy at work habit lifestyle

1. Chair: The hunched-forward, rounded-shoulder desk posture is endemic today. Avoid it! Find the ideal position by adjusting your chair so that your hips are at, or just slightly below, knee height. Then sit up straight with the base of your spine against the back of your chair, and roll back and forth on your pelvis until you arrive at the spot that most naturally supports this upright posture.

2. Keyboard: Keep it close enough so your upper arms are straight up and down when you type, and at a height that allows you to type without popping or flexing your wrists.

3. Monitor: Go big and go high. Small and low monitors cause you to lean in, which trains your back to round. Set your monitor up so the middle of the screen is at eye height. If you use a laptop, invest in a wireless keyboard and mouse, and place the computer at eye level.

4. Phone: Use a headset. Otherwise, you’re straining your neck and shoulder to hold the receiver in place, and heaving your ribs in the opposite direction to compensate.

Please Stand By

The desk jockey’s journey to the top of the cubicle. —Shannon Fischer

healthy at work habit lifestyle

Start standing at work and you’re going to hear about it: Hey, what happened to your chair? Don’t your feet get tired? 

Back in late 2011, I was working a job that had me sitting at a computer 10 hours straight, five days a week. My back hurt, my shoulders hurt, and my backside felt like it was actually flattening out. I was stiff, sore, unhealthy, and if I sat like that for one more second, I was going to lose it.

But I still wasn’t ready to commit to standing at work. Who wants to be the office nut? So I tried a subtle kneel, which worked beautifully for exactly five seconds, after which it started to hurt. Then I tried standing bent 90 degrees at the waist in a freakishly prolonged hamstring stretch that wore me out and wasn’t really appropriate for the workplace, anyway.

Finally, I just went all in. I stacked a box of beer and some hardcover books on an old breakfast-in-bed tray to get my monitor at eye level, rested the keyboard on the tray at elbow height, and finally, gloriously, stood.

Then came the questions. Yes, my feet did hurt, and my legs did get tired. But I just swapped out my heels for more sensible shoes, and learned to shift my weight around throughout the day. In recompense, my spine loosened up on the spot, and within a week, that nagging back pain had completely disappeared.

But the questions? Those didn’t stop. Hey, can I have dibs on your chair?

Ditch the Standard Chair

Which alternative is right for you?

healthy at work habit lifestylePhoto via Thinkstock 

Stability Ball

Pro: It engages and strengthens core muscles, which helps ease lower-back pain.
Con: The lack of armrests can encourage slumping.
Good for: Keeping bad posture from becoming chronic, by forcing you to continually adjust how you sit.

healthy at work habit lifestylePhoto courtesy of Anthro Technology

Standing Desk

Pro: You use more muscles than you would sitting, and the resulting calorie burn can translate into lost weight.
Con: Standing continuously for more than two hours can worsen lower-back pressure, and longer bouts increase the risk for varicose veins.
Good for: Improving the dreaded head-forward, slumped-shoulders posture.

healthy at work habit lifestylePhoto courtesy of Lifespan

Treadmill Desk

Pro: Staying on the move reduces stress and depression, and allows you to burn up to 2,000 calories per day.
Con: It’s expensive and requires a lot of space.
Good for: Surpassing your daily exercise quotient, relieving stress, and getting a better night’s sleep.

Adopt a Powerful Pose

Feeling stressed? You can change that in 120 seconds, simply by standing tall.

“Power is about how you react to stress,” Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, said during a TED talk last year. Effective leaders have higher levels of testosterone, she said, while subordinates tend to be flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone. Cuddy had test subjects strike poses with their chests and arms open and their heads up, and the results after only two minutes were remarkable: They were able to increase their testosterone level by 20 percent, while their cortisol level decreased 25 percent. Hunching or crossing the arms, by contrast, caused testosterone to decrease by 10 percent, while cortisol shot up 15 percent.

If You Do Only One Thing: Keep Moving

Eli Thompson, the founder of Boston Posture Center, tells his office-bound clients to buy a cheap kitchen timer, set it for 20 minutes, and put it on the other side of their office. “Just getting up, walking across the room, and coming back,” he says, “is enough to refresh the body.”


Check out all of our health and fitness coverage for more ways to live a healthy lifestyle.