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Tips for Avoiding a Sedentary Lifestyle in the Workplace

Jul 21, 2007 • general

Working in IT often means sitting motionless in front of a computer for most of the day. Except for typing, the rest of your body remains stagnant, sedentary, in a state of atrophy.Modern Workspace

Blogger J. Angelo Racoma explains what happens as he turned into a full-time freelancer and blogger and settled into a sedentary lifestyle:

When I quit the corporate grind to be a freelancer and a problogger, I usually stayed at home when I didn't have meetings and events to attend—which are actually quite infrequent and irregular. I found myself going out only once in a while to do my banking transactions—those I couldn't do online—and to take the wife and kids out during weekends. And then there are the cupboard raids for sugary and salty snacks, and of course the unlimited supply of coffee.

In short, turning problogger has caused me to live a sedentary lifestyle, compared to the relatively mobile and healthy daily routine I had before. I watched my waistline grow a couple of inches from its usual. I also sometimes feel sluggish because my muscles have atrophied from non-use! (Okay, exaggerating here.) The only muscles I get to exercise these days are my typing fingers and my coffee mug-lifting arm. (Source)

Whether at home or in your company office, a life of physical inactivity leads to a number of problems. A surprising recent study found that a sedentary lifestyle carries with it more dangers than cigarettes:

Following a sedentary lifestyle is more dangerous for your health than smoking, says a new study reported in the South China Morning Post, and carried out by the University of Hong Kong and the Department of Health. In the study, researchers looked at the level of physical activity in people who died and were able to correlate their level of physical activity with their risk of dying. The results are fascinating: 20% of all deaths of people 35 and older were attributed to a lack of physical activity. That's more deaths than can be attributed to smoking. (Source)

In addition to being a bit boring and increasing your love handles, a sedentary lifestyle "is believed to be a factor in obesity, and, in doing so, may contribute to other diseases, such as type II diabetes, heart disease, and hemorrhoids" (Source). 

I know someone with Guillain-Barre, a paralyzing disease of the muscles and nerves, who is productive and energetic online -- sending multiple, long e-mails each day, responding quickly and following up to each message I send him.

But in real life, he can only move about one foot a second using a walker. Except for the mobility of his fingers, his other body parts seems unnecessary for the online world. He's proof that interaction in the online world requires very little physical exertion whatsoever (except sitting on your butt for long periods of time). The problem is that the less we use our bodies, the less healthy they become.

Solutions to the Sedentary Life

Visions of modern offices sometimes build exercise into the workspace. In an exhibit in New York's Musuem of Modern Art, I saw desks tall enough that you stand and type -- there was no chair. Another had a slow-moving treadmill that you walk on while you work. While these architectural solutions seem novel, they are not easy to implement.

To combat the sedentary life, try the following tips:

1.Go running or walking at lunch. After many hours of sitting and typing, you're usually ready to get out. Go for a jog at lunch. After 20 minutes on a treadmill, you'll feel refreshed and much more productive when you return. If you don't feel like running, go for a walk or a bike ride.

2. Eat less and drink more water. This is much easier to say than do. But if you're sitting motionless all day, you need fewer calories. Make sure you have drinking water available at all times, when you're at work make sure you have water dispensers for offices. One of the wonders of the biological world is why our bodies don't naturally have a loss of appetite when our physical exertion is practically non-existent (for more, see this link). The high grease, sugar, and other chemicals in processed foods creates an addictiveness that causes us to eat more than normal. Food is also more abundant, convenient, and social than in times past. 

3. Interact with people in person. Technical writers sometimes have to often be investigative reporters to find out information. You have to meet with people, demonstrate usability problems and solutions, interview engineers on how software functions, and coordinate timelines and documents with other teams. You can do this via e-mail and phone, sure, but you can also communicate effectively -- and get some exercise in doing it -- by getting out of your cube and meeting with people in person.

Racoma, the blogger I quoted earlier, offers similar "outgoing" advice for overcoming the sedentary lifestyle:

My advice to you: unmount your donkey, leave your abode and have meaningful intercourse with a fellow human... Or at least go somewhere and get to immerse yourself in the goings-on of real people. Eat out. Take a stroll at the mall, park, or anywhere interesting. Go somewhere and watch people live their lives (Go ogle for all I care)! / This is why I go out and work at WiFi-enabled cafes (everyday while waiting for Pia's preschool class to finish). (Source)

In addition to exercise, getting out of your cube can also lead to inspiration. Racoma says that rather than copying and pasting snippets from your RSS feeds all day, getting outside and engaging in life inspires you with more ideas and insights to blog about. He says:

I've always believed we become more creative the more we get to immerse ourselves in reality. Art imitates life. The more we experience life, the more interesting ideas and perspectives we get out of it, even from the most mundane of things. / So if you're thinking of going into the problogging business, don't think you can just sit around all day sifting through your RSS feeds and doing the click-copy-paste routine. Again, go out and live life! (Source)

 4. Hide your chairs. Confession: I haven't done this much, but if you hold meetings without chairs, or take the chair away from your own office, it's a lot harder to kick back and sit around in sedentary mode for a long time. You tend to get to the point more quickly. Kneeling while you type helps you avoid insignificant tasks and encourages you to focus.

5. Join a company sport team. I played on my company's basketball team for four seasons and loved it. It gave me an excuse to get out of the house in the evenings and engage in a fun sport while at the same time increasing rapport with my colleagues (even though they worked in other departments). Organized sports helps you establish a routine and gives you something to work toward.

6. Adopt a figdety habit to deal with stress. It's common to turn to food when you experience IT stress. But if you can't figure out a solution to a problem, try adopting some other more physically productive response that makes you more active, such as bouncing your knee or wiggling around. I know this sounds a bit crazy, but an NPR article explains a study whose "findings suggest that making small changes to daily activities -- by tapping your toes, wiggling or otherwise expending more restless energy -- could be critical to weight loss" (source).

Suggestions?

What do you do to avoid a sedentary lifestyle? I'd love to hear your tips and ideas.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.