If you’re like us, you work on a computer most of your day, which means you sit for most or all of it. You’ve probably also seen the claims that sitting is the new smoking. Perhaps you’ve also seen some of the more, shall we say… enthusiastic solutions to this very real problem, ranging from buying into expensive standing or walking desks, to completely upending your work habits and environment.
Fortunately, there are much smaller steps you can take to make a pretty big impact on your health, and none of them involve building furniture. Let’s start at square one.
Take Time To Move
Whether or not you exercise for an hour every day, research shows that the core of the problem is being sedentary for long periods of time. Since that’s a typical work day for most of us, one of the easiest ways to start improving your health is to break up your day with bits of movement.
A 20-minute walk around the block or park is great, but so is simply getting up to stretch your legs in your office or house once every 30-60 minutes. Take a minute or two to stroll around, check out that piece of art you usually pass over, or take the long way to refill your water (bonus points: your should probably drink more of that too).
If you’re the type to get caught up in work and forget to take breaks, there are tools you can use to help remind you and, in some cases, even force you to get up and move for a bit:
- Mac users – Check out BreakTime, a menu bar app that can remind you to take a break, pop up a window that gets in your way, or, if you choose, even lock your Mac for a specified amount of time.
- Windows users – Check out EyeLeo. Similar to BreakTime, EyeLeo can remind you to take breaks and even lock your PC to force you away from your desk. It also has some clever exercises to help with eye strain.
- Folks who like to wear things – A number of health- and fashion-conscious bands, watches, pins, and other wearable gadgets offer audible and even physical reminders to get your move on. One perk here is that they can always be with you, whether you work on various devices or in different places throughout the day.
- Everyone – for something basic, and less intense, you could try just setting your watch or phone to go off every so often. There is also a genre of timers and apps around the Pomodoro technique. Typically used to help people focus intensely for specified chunks of time, separated by short breaks, the same concept can be adapted to remembering to move, including another alarm when you break is over.
Of course, there’s plenty you can do for yourself while getting your actual work done, starting with better posture. Bad posture puts strain on joints, muscles, and circulation, which all contributes to problems we’ve already covered.
To learn some easy basics of good posture, check out the video above (optionally, skip to 1:26 to get right to it). For the “passive sitting” types with a traditional chair back, some simple changes include:
- Adjust your back’s angle so you aren’t leaning too far forward or back as to strain your spinal column
- Adjust your height so your feet can sit comfortably on the floor with good circulation and, if necessary, add some kind of support under them to fit your chair height’s needs. Even a couple phone books could do the trick, if not something fancier
- Regularly rocking a little in your chair is a small movement that can offer with basic help. Bonus point: it can also help improve concentration!
“Active sitting” is another option. Some stools and other modern chairs can force your body into a positive posture, and they help core muscles which benefits calorie burning and overall health. Using a yoga ball as your chair can help with this.
Stretching is a great, low-impact way to train and reshape your body for better posture. There are a bunch of great stretches you can do right at your desk, and yes, one of them includes giving bemused looks right back at your coworkers (just kidding – those don’t require enough physical effort to be a benefit to the key muscles or joints at hand here).
If you’re looking for stretching inspiration, take a look at our previous Better Working series post on stretching.
The layout of our desk and the stuff on it is something many of us take for granted. As it turns out, things like your keyboard placement, monitor height, and proximity to your other daily necessities can also have a significant effect on your health over time.
Lifehacker has a great guide that breaks down the various aspects of desk layout and related posture that you could improve, so be sure to check it out sooner than later. Most of the solutions are either cheap or free, but here are some of the basics you can start pondering.
Assess the height of everything
The height of your desk and chair, especially in relation to each other, is really important. If either is too high or low, you could be putting unnecessary, perhaps even unperceived, strain on your body that can lead to things like over exerted muscles, pinched nerves, and misaligned spines.
The same goes for your monitor or notebook height; too low, and your neck might work too hard, which can cause pain in your neck, back strain, and headaches.
If your keyboard is too far away from you, you could be reaching too far to type. This can lead to overexerted muscles, a misaligned upper back, and RSI (repetitive strain injury) in your arms or wrists.
Similarly, if you repeatedly reach for specific items on your desk throughout the day—your red stapler, a stress ball, or printed materials—see if you can rearrange them to be closer. Your body will thank you.
Cushion all the things
A chair that is comfortable to sit in for long (but not too long!) periods may seem obvious. But keep in mind that this extends to your lower back and arms, too. Lumbar support is crucial, but if you don’t have it, one simple solution is to add a small pillow you can place back down there.
As for your arms, cushions are very useful for resting your arms when you can. If you can swing it, a chair with arm rests is ideal. If you can’t for now, ensuring that your desk is a proper height and close enough for arm restin’ might help in the meantime.
In Defense of Fidgeting
You read that right. Some situations, such as meetings and car rides, simply don’t lend themselves to standing up, let alone pacing around your office. According to a study illuminated by the New York Times, one part of you that is uniquely affected by excessive sitting is the vascular system in your legs.
In short, oversitting causes an increase in your legs’ blood pressure over time. If you are regularly in situations where standing just isn’t an option, the study found that common fidgeting behaviors like tapping your foot or bouncing your leg might help. While a small physical movement, it could be enough to stimulate your leg muscles and maintain a decent blood flow, staving off some of the negative repercussions of excessive sitting.
Gotta Start Somewhere
These ideas should be enough to help even the busiest start taking better care of themselves, no treadmill or workout pants required. The negative health effects of our sedentary work and personal lifestyles are indeed a large problem. But their solutions can absolutely start out small, yet meaningful. Plus, for those who don’t exercise much yet, turning some of these simple ideas into effortless habits can serve as inspiration to take the next steps for your personal health.