How to Stay Healthy When You Spend All Day at a Desk

For most of us, our work requires that we sit at a desk all day looking at our computer. And if you've read the news recently, you've probably heard that this is slowly killing us. In fact, being sedentary is second only to smoking as the highest risk of death. (There's a saying in the health space these days that I love: "Sitting is the new smoking.")

Given that, motivated people make the effort to go to the gym or an exercise class for an hour or so before or after work because they want to ensure that they'll live long, healthy lives. And this is great and demonstrates a real commitment to long-term health., but...

It turns out that even people who meet the current recommendations for exercise but spend most of the day sitting still suffer the same deleterious health consequences of physical inactivity.

Current (but outdated) recommendation for physical activity:
               150 minutes moderate-intensity exercise
                75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week

In other words, your exercise regimen (even if you exercise the recommended amount per week) is not enough to protect you from the negative effects of sitting at a desk all day.

Think about it this way: As a species we did not evolve to be sedentary. Our ancestors spent their days wandering around, hunting, gathering, and so on. We evolved to be an active species, and it's only in our very, very recent history that we've suddenly become people who spend the vast majority of our time stationary. Well, our bodies haven't adapted for this, and it's hugely detrimental to our health.

The reality is that most of us have to work at a desk all day, and that's not something that we can change. So what can we do then to protect our health and make sure that we are setting ourselves up for a long, healthy life?


Build more activity into your day.

  1. Walk more. For example, walk to and from work if you live close enough; if not, park further away or get off public transportation a stop earlier and walk. Take the stairs. Walk to lunch. Just walk more.
  2. Set an alert to remind yourself to stand up from your desk every 30 minutes. Use that time to get up and re-fill your water bottle, use the restroom, or chat with a friend. If you're swamped and really can't leave your desk, just stand up and sit back down as even the simple act of engaging our muscles and getting up helps protect us from the negative effects of sitting for too long. You can install a free app onto your computer and have it alert you (Time Out works well for Macs, and Workrave is great for Windows).
  3. Work at a standing or treadmill desk. Try out working at a standing desk for half an hour and see if you can gradually increase the amount of time. A lot of people say it significantly improves their productivity, so win-win.
  4. Do vigorous exercise at least 3x/week. Get your heart rate up.
  5. Don't slouch. When you are sitting, sit actively. Not only is slouching bad for your posture, but it also impairs concentration. Slouching physically compresses your lungs and limits the amount of oxygen they can take it. Less oxygen into your lungs means there's less oxygen available to travel to your brain, which makes concentration much more challenging.

Now tell me, have you already adopted any of these strategies? Have they helped?  Let me know in the comments!