We live in a world with a rich digital culture, and we depend on the internet for so much of our lives — from social relationships, to entertainment, to shopping, and for many of us, even our jobs. While it’s convenient to have access to all these things at our fingertips, it contributes to the trend of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle as well as a rise in rates of obesity.
Consider how much time you spend sitting: daily traveling in your car or via public transportation, eating meals, watching television or movies, after which you’ll eventually lie down and sleep. If you also spend your working day seated at a desk, you may be vulnerable to some serious health risks. Here are some of the most common strategies for staying healthy and combating the damage your desk job may be inflicting on your body and mind.
Understand the Negative Effects of Sitting
A number of studies have pointed to the dangers of sitting. For example, one group of researchers found that men and women who spent more than six hours per day sitting died earlier than those who spent three hours or less per day. Some have even compared the ill effects of sitting to the damage caused by regularly smoking. This comparison holds true because, like cigarette smoking, the harm caused by sitting can’t be reversed by incorporating exercise or other positive habits. This means someone who regularly runs and someone who never exercises would both experience the harmful effects of prolonged sitting.
When we sit for long periods of time, the electrical activity in our muscles drops significantly, which negatively impacts our ability to burn calories, process insulin, and break down fatty acids in our blood. This can lead to blood sugar problems and weight gain. Our circulatory systems also suffer, as gravity and increased pressure causes sore, tired legs, and could lead to more serious conditions such as vein disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, and increased risk of stroke. In addition, poor posture will contribute to an aching neck and shoulders as well as lower back problems.
Focus on Proper Posture
I’ve experienced the benefits of proper posture firsthand. Having worked several desk jobs, I know it’s easy to get into the habit of slouching forward over a keyboard, especially when you’re super focused on the work you’re doing. At one point, my neck hurt so bad, I had a constant aching sensation and felt like I could barely hold my head up, even when I was focusing on my posture. It took about two weeks of steady focus to retrain my body and recover from the strain I’d inflicted on my body.
There are a few major factors to consider to maintain a healthy posture when seated. First, the top of your monitor should be at or slightly below your eye level. This will keep you from spending too much time slouching forward, looking down at your screen. The muscles in your neck have a much easier time supporting the weight of your head when your head is held slightly back, staring straight out at your screen. Keeping your monitor about a foot and a half away from your face will also help keep your head and torso in proper alignment.
Next, be sure to hold your shoulders back and relaxed. Your ears, shoulders, and hips should be in line with each other, and your elbows should remain at your sides with your forearms parallel to the floor. You may need to adjust the height of your chair or, if possible, the height of your desk. It’s worth noting, that adjustable standing desks can offer you a chance to break up long periods of sitting throughout the day. Your chair should support your spinal curve, and the seat height should be adjusted so your feet are flat on the floor and your knees are in line with (or slightly lower than) your hips.
Take Regular Breaks
Taking breaks on a regular basis during your workday offers a variety of benefits to your physical and mental health as well as your productivity. As you might suspect, staring at a computer screen for hours on end isn’t great for your eyes. In a focused state of mind, you may not blink as often, which allows your eyes to dry out. Your eye muscles also strain to focus on a variety of objects, images, and text on a screen, which can lead to eye fatigue and headaches.
To combat this strain on your eyes, it’s a good idea to take a vision break every 15 to 20 minutes. For one to two minutes, look away from your computer screen, preferably focusing on something at least 20 feet away. This gives the muscles in your eyes a chance to relax. Blinking rapidly for a few seconds can also clear and moisturize the surface of your eyes.
Many experts recommend taking a short break every hour or two to engage your muscles, reinvigorate your metabolism, and allow your circulatory system to flow more naturally. This could be as simple as taking 10 to 15 minutes to walk around your office building or find a space to do some light stretching or even yoga.
If you can’t get away from work for this long, you might try taking micro-breaks by standing up and marching in place for 30 seconds. You can even make use of quick breaks to refill a water bottle or grab a quick snack. This can allow you to stretch your legs while also keeping you hydrated and preventing your blood sugar from dropping too low.
Taking breaks is a good idea beyond purely physical reasons. Everyone likely knows that feeling when you’re really into a project, your ideas are flowing, and you’re getting a lot of work done. On the other end of the spectrum is boredom and burnout. Our brains weren’t built for extended focus, and if you push yourself to stay on task for too long, it can actually lower your productivity and leave you stressed out, irritable, or even depressed. Taking a few minutes every now and then can allow your mind to reset and more easily get back on track when you notice your workflow is slowing down.
Explore Alternatives to Traditional Workspaces
Expectations for an office workspace are changing, and one of the fastest growing workplace trends involves companies allowing their employees to work remotely. This is especially true in organizations where employees work primarily on computers. If your company offers a remote work policy, you should consider taking advantage of the benefits of remote work.
For example, while your employer might not be able to spring funds on new adjustable height desks or comfortable chairs on a regular basis, a home office setup could allow you to invest in better quality equipment suited just for your needs. You may not feel you have the funds for this investment either, but consider that you could also save a lot of time and money on travel expenses by working from home.
By working from home, you can keep greater control over a lot of other environmental factors like the lighting conditions and temperature, which means you’ll be more comfortable and avoid minor annoyances that could lead to larger stresses in a traditional work space. You’ll likely also be able to move more freely at home than you would in an office setting. Consider the benefits of taking five or 10 minutes to do a short yoga set, stretching parts of your body that might otherwise remain tense for an entire day’s shift. Although some offices might be yoga friendly, it’s not yet a common trend.
When compared to careers related to manual labor, criminal justice, and healthcare, it may seem like a desk job is the safest place you could be. However, there are hidden dangers that can have both immediate and long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health. Too many people take for granted that the best way to get through the day is to force themselves to stay pinned to a chair, staring at their computer screen. Instead, consider the subtle ways this can damage your body, and strive to be intentional about your posture, your nutrition, and your mental state. By putting effort into each of these areas, you can be a healthier and more productive employee and better enjoy the work you do.