Body Sense

Restorative embodied self-awareness as a pathway to well-being.

New research shows that sedentary work contributes to weight gain

Bring your body sense to work today

In 1960, about half of the jobs available required at least moderate physical activity. In the US today, only 20% of jobs require moderate activity. The rest are either sedentary or require only minimal activity. This makes sense, even for office work. As late as the 1980's, if you wanted copies of a document, you had to walk to the copy machine in your office building. Most memos were hard copy, so you had to go to your mailbox to pick them up. Meetings were primarily face-time affairs, perhaps in different buildings to which you had to walk. Books and reams of paper had to be carried from place to place. Contrast those activities with the self-contained, web-based, skype-equipped work stations of today and it's not hard to see why people at work are expending 120-140 calories less per day now compared to 50 years ago.

140 calories doesn't sound like much, but a team of biostatisticians led by Timothy Church, of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of Louisiana State University did the math to show that this amount of reduction in physical activity corresponds almost exactly with the national weight gain in the past 50 years. In 1960, the average male weighed 169 pounds while today the average is 202 pounds. Church and colleagues estimated that the reduced calorie expenditure at work, if transformed into weight gain since 1960, would result in an average male weight of 197 pounds in 2011. The results are similar for women.

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So, in addition to super-sized, high caloric, high fat fast foods and snacks made readily available by industrial-sized food producers, we now can blame the digital revolution - the paperless computer-cubicle work station - and efficiency minded managers for the nation's weight problem. It's not our fault that we are getting fatter; it's them. We have to deal with higher levels of time pressure and stress because of office downsizing in this economy where we can't afford to quit or lose a job and we only have time to run down to the junk food vending machine in the hall, or the cafeteria which is operated by several fast-food franchises, or the corner take-out place. This is not a healthy environment for working or eating. Bring a nice healthy low fat, low carb lunch to work? Good idea unless you usually find yourself sitting in morning traffic eating your microwave-defrosted egg muffin and combing your hair, after barely getting your kids dressed and off to school.

I suppose you could use all of this information to justify why you can't lose weight or even to tell yourself that it isn't even worth trying to change: the system is going to get you one way or another. If you want to go that way, let me give you a few talking points. Aside from work today being mostly sedentary, it is also stressful for your mind and body. Work deadlines, unreasonable expectations, and less-than compassionate managers are bad for your health and weight. Your work station is probably also physically uncomfortable in a way that is likely to lead to back, shoulder and neck pain from hunching over to see a computer screen, carpel tunnel syndrome from endless typing, impaired eyesight, and headaches. Stress compromises the body sense, our ability to pay attention to ourselves (like being able to feel our discomfort before it becomes a chronic condition, or sensing whether the type and amount of food you eat is good for your body) and disables our immune system in a way that can lead to much more serious illness such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some types of cancers. It's no surprise that these diseases also have higher rates of occurrence in individuals who are obese.

Here's another nail in your coffin. A group of educational researchers wanted to observe the normal activities preschool children, hoping to find the conditions that fostered physical activity as a way to possibly prevent children from slipping into developmental pathways that lead to obesity. What they found instead is that across multiple schools, preschool children spent only 3% of their day in moderate physical activity! The kids had 8% light activity and a whopping 89% of their school time was sedentary.

I know it sounds like you can't win, but you can. A little bit of body sense (kind of like common sense applied to your sensations and feelings) can go a long way toward improving your health, reducing your weight, and making you feel better. Here are a few workplace tips to begin your own little revolution against the tyranny of the system.

1. Get up and walk away from your workstation (like to the bathroom or to get a drink) at least once every hour. Don't drag yourself: walk with some at-ti-tude, with a little bounce and sway to activate more muscles and burn more calories.
2. Stand at your work station for a few minutes every half hour. You can stand while moving papers, talking on the phone, or whatever. Sway a bit, bend and straighten your knees, lift your arms over your head, touch your toes, swing your arms from side-to-side. Pay attention to how you are moving in relation to your body. If your neck is sore, gently turn your head from side-to-side or let your head hang to the sides and front to gently stretch your neck muscles. When you get home, remember to do a few stretches and movements in the areas that are most likely to get sore or strained. Slow movement with awareness is better than trying to push your limits.
3. Adjust your screen, keyboard, chair height and distance to reduce strain on your muscles and eyes. This may take a week or more to find the right settings for your body. If there are limited ways to do this supplied by the work setting, bring boxes or pillows from home to elevate your screen or support your back.
4. During breaks, walk as far as you can and get outside for part of that walk if there is any possibility of doing this. Green exercise (out-of-doors) brings added benefits.
5. Climb stairs instead of taking the elevator.
6. Park your car at the farthest end of the lot instead of seeking the closest parking place.
7. Close your eyes every so often and just come to rest in a mini-meditation, giving yourself an opportunity to feel into your body to check your muscle tension, soreness, and level of fatigue.

If you work in a public area, some of these things are harder to accomplish when you are being watched, but maybe you'll set a trend. I've done some of these things at work meetings and in airplane aisles. Nobody gets up and follows my lead but they stop staring after a few minutes. Whatever your work conditions, there are at least a few things you can do at your work station and especially on breaks. To get the most benefit, pay close attention to your body sensations while doing these exercises because that will guide you to move in ways that loosen and strengthen the parts of you needing the most care. Yeah, the system is against you but you don't have to take it sitting down.

Alan Fogel, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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