How to sneak in healthy physical activity during a sedentary work day

Too much sitting around can bring heart health risks, but when your job has you sitting all day, what do you do?

“Sit less, move more,” is the simple advice from Deborah Rohm Young, chair of the panel that wrote a 2016 American Heart Association advisory published in the journal Circulation. The AHA recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week. “Take those smaller breaks throughout the day so you’re not sitting all at once.”

In all, U.S. adults spend an average six to eight hours a day being sedentary. But whether it’s based at home or at the office, the work must get done. So Young, a director of behavioral research at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, suggests setting a timer to remember to move around for five minutes every hour, or 10 minutes every two hours.

Here are other ways to introduce movement:

  • Walk during breaks, and use longer breaks to stroll outdoors, whether down the street or laps around the building.
  • A midday walk during a lunch break can help the mind to focus on the afternoon’s work.
  • Stand during meetings.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Walk to talk with a co-worker in person rather than using the phone or electronic messaging.
  • Take public transportation to work instead of driving. It likely involves walking to and from the transit stop.
  • Use standing or adjustable height desks to avoid sitting while on the phone or at the computer.
  • Exercise at your desk, with squats or jumping jacks.

Even simple ankle and arm flexes or stretching occasionally while sitting at a desk gets muscles active, Young said.

Though the cost of sedentary behavior has not been quantified in dollars, the costs of poor health and ensuing productivity loss in the workplace has. It’s about $225.8 billion overall per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Legislation under consideration in Congress, called the PHIT Act, would classify gym memberships and exercise class costs as medical expenses for tax purposes, Young said. The proposal, in the works for about a decade, centers on pre-tax medical accounts. The end-of-year government shutdown ran out the clock on a key Senate vote for the bill, so the legislation will have to be re-introduced in the House and Senate in 2019.

More companies are using workplace wellness programs to encourage employees to boost their physical activity and take other steps that contribute to better cardiovascular and overall health. On-site gyms and fitness classes at work can give those who might not otherwise seek out an exercise program a way to explore one.

But programs also must be encouraging and welcoming so that all workers, not just the “fitness buffs” feel comfortable enough to participate, Young said. “Just getting in that door can be intimidating.”

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