10 Ways To Keep Your Job From Killing You Slowly

by Shana Montesol Johnson

If you’re in the wrong job, you may feel like it’s slowly sucking the life out of you. Yet research tells us that even if you love your job, it may be killing you slowly…if you’re sitting for most of your work day.

Researchers have found that the longer you sit, the shorter your average life span. Specifically, in an American Cancer Society study of more than 120,000 people over a span of 14 years, women who sat for six or more hours a day had a 34% increased risk of dying compared with those who sat for less than three hours a day.  (The increased risk for men was 17%.)  The study controlled for risk factors such as body mass index (BMI) and smoking.


These research results are bad news for us, because many of us – myself included – sit…all…day…long. We sit during the commute, at our computers, in meetings, on conference calls. Business travel is often one big sit-fest: sitting in the lounge, waiting for the flight; sitting on the plane; sitting in meetings.

Our leisure time also involves sitting – at dinner with our families or friends, reading bedtime stories to our kids, watching TV. Our social lives and hobbies also seem to revolve around sitting: meeting friends for coffee, seeing a movie, reading a good book, catching up on Facebook.

Exercise Is Not an Antidote for Sitting

“But wait,” you protest, “I may sit all day at work, but I’m in shape and exercise three or four times a week.”  Unfortunately, “Exercise is not a perfect antidote for sitting,” says Marc Hamilton, a leading researcher on inactivity physiology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, as quoted in a recent New York Times article.

Even if we exercise regularly, say, 30 minutes per day – that’s still only 1.5% of a total week or maybe 3% of our waking hours. And the studies on sitting have factored in physical activity – yet the increased mortality rate remains. (Of course, without regular exercise, those mortality rates increase to a whopping 94% for women and 48% for men – so this is no excuse to cancel your gym membership.)

What Happens When You Sit?

Sitting triggers multiple and simultaneous reactions in the human body:

  • Calorie burning decreases
  • The effectiveness of insulin in processing blood sugars drops (by as much as 40% within just one day of inactivity)
  • Electrical activity in the muscles plummets
  • Good cholesterol (HDL) decreases
  • Ability to process fat drops

These effects may lead not only to obesity, but also increased risks for developing Type 2 diabetes and cardio-vascular problems. And this is even if we exercise regularly.

How to Keep Your Desk Job From Killing You Slowly

“Excessive sitting is a lethal activity,” says Dr. James Levine, Mayo Clinic researcher in the area of inactivity studies.  However, he also points out that integrating more movement into our work day can lead to major health benefits.

Here are 10 ideas to get you started:

1.      Change your workspace configuration. One increasingly popular option is to switch to a standing desk. A less radical alternative is to swap your chair for an exercise ball – sitting on it requires more energy and uses your back and abdominal muscles in a way that chairs don’t. But if you want to go for the most extreme approach, why not buy a $4,459 treadmill desk?

2.      Take frequent stretch breaks. Program your watch, mobile phone, or computer to beep at certain intervals to remind you. Try some of the moves in this slide show of office stretches or do this quick 10-minute desk yoga routine from Emergency Yoga – Yoga for humanitarians.

3.      Stand when you talk on the phone. If you use speakerphone or a headset, you can pace.

4.      Schedule “standing meetings” for discussions of just a few agenda items. You might be pleased to find another benefit of this approach – meetings will probably be shorter!

5.      Rather than calling or emailing, walk over to your colleague’s workspace to talk with them.

6.      Better yet, schedule a “walk-and-talk” meeting with your colleague rather than conversing via phone, email, or in their cubicle.

7.      Go for a walk rather than staring at your blank computer screen when you have writer’s block or need to think, brainstorm, or figure something out. If you need to keep track of your thoughts, you can record a voice memo on your smartphone.

8.      Read standing up. Instead of sitting at your computer reading documents or other content online, load it onto your iPad or other device, or – although not very eco-friendly – print it out.

9.      Program some deliberate inefficiency into your day. Send your print jobs to the printer furthest from, rather than closest to, your desk.  Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

10.  Take a walk on your lunch break. If you live in a tropical climate like I do, and the thought of walking around in the sweltering heat of the noontime hour is unappealing, plan to walk indoors – even a mall will do.

On a personal note, this blog post was difficult to write if only because I found myself leaping out of my seat as if it were radioactive.  The irony of sitting while writing about the perils of sitting was not lost on me. I noticed that I was subconsciously trying many of the tips outlined above. I am now definitely more inspired to explore various options for my workspace and work style – but I’ll hold off on the treadmill desk for now.

What has worked for you to inject more movement into your day? Please share in the Comments section below.

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Photo by emdot

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Al Dingwall

Great post. As I sit there hour after hour after hour staring myopically at the screen I have often thought: “this can’t be good for me”. And you have confirmed it! I am trying to adopt as many of your tips as I can. Only this morning I abandoned an e-mail I was typing and walked 20 metres up the corridor to talk to to the guy. Gotta do more of that.



Al, thanks for the feedback! I’m glad to hear that you are trying out some of the tips. I am as well. Please keep me posted if you try any more!


Catherine Reade

Better health truly is just about moving more throughout your day. Even if you are not a “regular exerciser”, fidgeting or lifestyle activity is health protective as it activates your body’s metabolism. A body in motion, stays in motion!
Thank you for a concise and practical article!


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