How to stay healthy physically when you work at a desk a lot
Working at a desk can be exhausting, ironically. Sitting all day and focusing on a screen can tire you out. Unfortunately, though, it’s not tiredness from something physically challenging – quite the opposite. In fact, sitting at a desk all day can actually make you less healthy over time. If you are a desk worker, focusing on how to stay healthy is necessary to ensure you’re always able to give life your best effort year after year.
As you look at how to stay healthy, there are a lot of things that you can do. From a mental perspective, there’s some basic mental health first aid. But when it comes to how to stay healthy physically, there are many things you can do that don’t take much time – but have big impact.
Book gym time in your calendar
That’s right – all you have to do is write it down and you’re already more likely to stay healthy. If you have a gym membership (or perhaps a gym in your building / community), book time in your calendar to go. Simply writing down a goal, for example going to the gym, makes you 42 percent more likely to succeed at it. Putting it in your calendar with a set time and date only increases the chances of success. To supercharge this benefit, make the calendar hold recurring so you have it showing up automatically in your calendar.
When it comes to booking things in your calendar, the real focus is feasibility. Simply writing it in the calendar is helpful, but it has to be at a time that you can actually make it work. For example, if you know you have lunch meetings most days, then a lunch workout isn’t feasible for you. Book it in times you can actually get to the gym or do another physical activity like running.
Take a short walk every 1-2 hours
If you’re wondering how to stay healthy and hoping for a secret weapon, it’s walking. A Harvard study found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31 percent – and reduced the risk of dying by 32 percent. People who work in more labour intensive jobs may get to walk throughout their day, but desk jockeys often don’t walk… sometimes at all. There are some people that only walk when they are heading to the bathroom or to get a coffee. Don’t be these people (if you want to stay healthy, that is).
The bonus of walking frequently is that it can help you overcome a mental block at work. So not only are you more physically healthy, you’re more mentally fit as well and can get more done. Talk about a win-win.
Do body weight activity at your desk
If you’re already walking but worried about muscle tone (either gaining it or keeping it), try body weight exercises at your desk. Don’t worry, this doesn’t require getting super sweaty. Instead, you do low-intensity body weight exercises frequently throughout the day with low reps each time. Over the course of a whole day, the numbers really add up.
Thinking of how to stay healthy with body weight exercises? Try these every hour you’re sitting at your desk:
- 5 pushups
- 10 body weight squats
You may look a little silly, but you’re adding some much-needed resistance activity into your day. Bonus too is that you get blood flowing, which can help you be more creative and get more done.
Play in a rec or office league
If you work in a job that takes over your life, one of the best ways to stop it from taking your health is to play in a recreational (“rec”) or office league with coworkers. Most major cities have recreational sports leagues for every big sport throughout the year, so just google “[Your city name] [preferred sport] rec league” and see what comes up.
On top of health benefits, you get social and work benefits. You get to socialize with coworkers (and sometimes your bosses if they opt to join the league), giving you the chance to continue doing business while also getting more healthy. And, who knows, you may realize you’ve got a secret talent for different sports.
Take walking meetings
If walking alone is helpful, then walking with others can be helpful as well. Walking meetings are just as they sound – instead of sitting at a desk for your meeting, you walk. That could be around your office, depending on size, but it’s also a great opportunity to go outside for some fresh air. When you walk during a meeting, you’re of course getting the physical health benefits of walking. But you are also activating the brain differently, leading to more creativity. And, since you’re in a different environment than an office or meeting room, you may find the meeting goes differently as well.
Walking meetings are tough if you have a large group of people or need to look at data, so they tend to be best for one on one or three person meetings that are discussion based. If you need to look at charts and data, book a meeting room. But if you need to talk things over, gain perspectives, and check opinions, go for a walk!
Work standing up
If you’re wondering how to stay healthy, standing at your desk is a big one. Even if none of the other ideas work for you – whether that’s not your personal style, you work in a job that won’t allow it, or something else – work standing up. This small change can have huge impact. The average person burns about 50 calories a day standing up to work, which may not sound like much but becomes an average of 12,500 calories a year or 3.5 lbs. Just from standing! Combined with other physical activities, standing at work can get you well on your way to being more healthy.
The additional benefit of working standing up is that you can interact more easily with coworkers if they walk over to you (no more straining your neck to look up when someone comes over). You also get more energy with a standing desk, something helpful for those long days.
Have a bottle of water with you at all times
When people talk about getting or staying healthy, they usually think of two things: working out (or physical activity of any kind) and eating good foods. Both are absolutely necessary to getting – and staying – healthy, but there’s one other element that’s often forgotten about: water. Human bodies need water to survive, but also for a variety of other things.
So if you’re a desk worker, keep a bottle of water with you at all times to stay healthier.
Water will help in a variety of ways. First, energy levels are tied to dehydration. A study by the National Institute of Health found that dehydration, defined as not having enough water in your system, can cause tiredness, bad moods, and low energy and flexibility. So if you’re dehydrated, you’re less likely to have the energy you need to prepare healthy foods or get physical activity.
Second, water helps you have better workouts. Studies show that being dehydrated can make muscle pain feel worse, which could have you stopping your workouts early because you’re extra sore. You can also be less flexible and weaker when you’re dehydrated, making it so your workouts are less effective.
Third, not drinking enough water makes you crave sugar. If you’re trying to stay healthy, eating too much sugar can be a big problem for you. It sounds weird, but studies show that when your body wants water, it makes you crave sugar. If you give into those cravings too much, you could end up unhealthy – too much sugar in your diet leads to a lot of problems like weight gain and eventually diabetes.
Try to plan 5 minute breaks between meetings
When you have a lot of meetings, even if you love your coworkers and the work you’re doing, it can tire you out. This happens when you are constantly switching between meetings. They all start to blur together and you feel tired. And when you’re tired, you crave quick-energy foods like sugar or caffeine.
Giving yourself a quick break – even five minutes – between meetings can help you reset and get ready for the next challenge.
This little break helps in two key ways. First, it gives you the chance to eat a healthy snack or have some water, both things that studies show give you more energy and keep you healthier. When you’re hydrated and eating well, it’s easier to power through a rough day.
Second, a quick break helps you mentally prepare for the meeting. If you’re going between different kinds of meetings – for example, from a sales meeting to a team meeting – the additional time gives you a few minutes to review notes and get ready for the meeting. This will help you be more efficient and relaxed, so you’re not stuck working when you’re exhausted to make up for something.
Keep high protein snacks at your desk
When we’re hungry, we often pick up the most convenient item and eat it. This is perfectly natural. In the workplace, it’s often necessary, since you’re picking up a snack before you head out to a meeting or because you’ve got work you need to do and can’t take the time to eat a full meal.
If you want to stay healthy without hurting your work or productivity, keep high protein snacks at your desk. This could be something simple like a protein bar, a pre-made protein shake, or a high protein food like Greek yoghurt, hard boiled eggs, or even almonds.
Keeping high protein snacks at your desk helps you stay healthy in a couple ways. First, foods with protein give you energy that lasts longer than sugar-based energy. That means you won’t have the peak-and-crash that happens when you eat something sweet. Over the long-run, you’ll likely be healthier because of the sustained energy that allows you to keep going through your meetings. Since humans always go for convenience, having those snacks readily available for you will help you stay on track.
Second, protein keeps your hunger signals off longer. This means that if you focus on protein in your snacks, you won’t be craving more food later on. Since hunger signals can take focus away from your work, it’s possible that you’ll be more productive. But another big benefit is that you won’t have huge cravings to overeat when you have more protein in your diet, which is a great way to stay healthier long-term.
Make your desk and chair do the work for you
A big part of being healthy – and staying healthy – is avoiding problems that stop you from taking care of yourself. Unfortunately, your desk and chair may be one of the biggest problems of all. Because you spend hours sitting and working each day, the position you sit in will take a toll on your body over time. If you’re constantly hunched over, for example, you may end up getting tightness or pain in your back. This could end up with you not being able to work out as hard – or feeling really stressed and craving sugary snacks.
Because health is a lot about the environment you work in, having a chair and desk that supports you is necessary for staying healthy. In a word, it’s called “ergonomics,” which is the focus on bodily positions for optimal health.
Making your chair and desk ergonomical is thankfully not that hard. Most of being “ergonomic” just means keeping your body at simple angles. For example:
- A chair that is at a height so your knees are at a 90 degree angle.
- Making sure your desk is the right height so your elbows are at a 90 degree angle when you’re typing on your computer.
- Have your screen at eye level, whatever that is for you.
- Use a chair that helps you keep your back straight.
Little shifts like this can keep you much healthier in the long run by helping to avoid muscle issues that come from sitting in a bad position for a long time. If you don’t have adjustable chairs or desks, see if you can get them from your employer. With a doctor’s note, you may not have to pay anything (check with your state/local employment laws beforehand).
No matter how ergonomic your chair and desk is, staying in one position for a long time will cause muscles to lose flexibility. When that happens, small tasks can cause pain. For example, have you ever talked to someone who threw their back out just lifting a grocery bag or reaching for something on a shelf? Seemingly normal tasks can completely throw you off if your muscles aren’t as flexible as they used to be.
Thankfully, getting back muscle flexibility is easy: just stretch! Most of the time, people think stretching means doing yoga for hours on end or something like that. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Stretching can be as easy as holding your arms across your body, or something similar.
While yoga is a great way to stretch because the poses have been curated over time by various experts, it’s not the only way to stretch. You could easily read books about stretching to identify the perfect stretch for whatever muscle is feeling tense. That way you can create a custom routine that works for you, your lifestyle, and your needs.
Adjust screen brightness
Studies show the average person spends almost 7 hours a day in front of screens. That could mean your computer, your TV, your smartphone, or something else, but it’s a lot of time. Considering the average person sleeps 7-9 hours a night, that means you’re looking at a screen for nearly half of the hours you’re awake.
All of the manufactured light behind the screens can put strains on your eyes. Studies even show that the light emitted by screens affects your sleep, making it more difficult to fall and stay asleep each night. That means you’re more likely to get burnt out or be tired at work. If that happens, your workouts and other attempts at a healthy life might become less effective.
So while staring at a screen is not directly going to affect eyesight – studies show that “straining your eyes” from looking at screens doesn’t link to lasting damage – it can affect how well you sleep. If you want to stay healthy, then you need rest as much as you need to work out and eat right. So get ahead of the screen issue by adjusting your brightness levels or putting on a blue light filter, which some phones call “nighttime mode.”
Space out your caffeine
Whether a coffee, energy drink, or tea, caffeine is everywhere in the working world. Most professionals have caffeine to help give them an energy boost. Studies debate the health benefits, with some saying it’s healthy and good for you while others say it’s not. But one benefit is clear: energy. When you drink caffeine, you get a burst of energy.
Some people drink so much caffeine that they don’t feel it unless they drink a lot. So they may have a large coffee in the morning instead of a small or medium. But if you want to keep healthy throughout the day as a desk worker, consider spacing out your caffeine throughout the day to get more sustained energy from caffeine instead of a big jolt in the morning.
When you drink a huge amount of caffeine and then nothing, you set yourself up for a crash. Then your body will crave other forms of quick energy, usually sugar. That’s one of the causes of slumps in energy – you have a bunch of caffeine in your system and then your body processes it and craves more. If you want to avoid that crash in energy (and the extra calories that comes with craving sugar), consider spacing out your caffeine throughout the day.
Instead of a massive jolt and then a crash, spacing out caffeine may level your energy levels throughout the day. This will help you avoid sugar cravings and massive swings in how awake versus tired you feel.