Standing desks and other smart ways to make your workday healthier

Standing desks and other smart ways to make your workday healthier


Standing desks and other smart ways to make your workday healthier

When Patricia Longmuir books a meeting space at work, she often reserves the great outdoors—well, not all of it, but as much of it as her team can cover in, say, 30 minutes. Attached to the emailed meeting request is a map of the route they'll follow. "I love any opportunity to get up and do something other than sit," says Longmuir,  a physical activity researcher with Ottawa's Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute (CHEO RI).

Longmuir's health-centric organization may have a more progressive workplace culture than most, but ideas that involve 9-to-5 physical activity, such as walking meetings, are ripe for the picking. Emerging research, much of it Canadian, is telling us that sitting for too long is as bad for us as smoking. Being sedentary for extended periods (the majority of North Americans spend six or more hours a day seated) is now considered a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and a shortened life span.

"But I exercise three times a week!" That's great, but hitting the gym after work isn't enough to combat the effects of sitting; we need regular movement breaks throughout the day. Estimates vary, but research suggests sitting at our desks, in our cars and in front of the TV for more than three hours a day can shorten life expectancy by two to four years.

The commute to work doesn't seem to be helping matters, either, especially for car commuters (who are considered more sedentary than transit riders). After studying about 2,000 people, researchers from L'Université de Montréal found a link between commuting stress and career burnout. Time spent in a car or taking transit to work was a key factor: A commute of up to 20 minutes wasn't problematic, but commutes of 35 minutes or longer resulted in heightened career cynicism.

Feeling the strain? These easy tweaks can make your workday healthier:

Break it up
You know those days when you forget to eat or hit the restroom for hours on end? Pledge to put them behind you. "Even getting out of your chair every 30 to 60 minutes for a two-minute walk will help," says Gilles Beaudin, registered clinical exercise physiologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Toronto. Researchers at the University of Utah found that, when men and women replaced as little as two minutes of sitting with gentle walking each hour over four years, their risk of premature death was lowered by 33 percent.

Walk and talk
The walking meeting is poised to become the best workplace trend in years. At CHEO RI, employees choose between outdoor walking meetings and on-site conferences when booking a meeting space through Outlook. Longmuir says the drop-down menu prompts employees to ask themselves, "Can this meeting be a walking meeting?" Longmuir has learned that smaller groups (on a path that allows everyone to simultaneously walk and converse) work best, as does an agenda led by one person who's presenting to the group. It's also advisable to check the weather; a windy day means you'll get your walk in but not everyone will hear you.

Then, there's the trend toward "sweat-working" with colleagues or clients, says Brenda Clark, an Ottawa-based human resources consultant, occupational health nurse and certified personal trainer. Instead of meeting in a café or a restaurant, you socialize and network at the gym or while playing a sport. If you're comfortable kicking a soccer ball around the field, go for it. Being outside and active offers not only health benefits but also the opportunity to build relationships, says Clark.

Get up, stand up
Standing, though not as effective as walking, is a good place to start. Standup desks, for instance, can reduce sedentariness and boost productivity. "Research on standup desks shows that productivity goes up and people are more alert in office and educational settings," says Bob Weil, president of OneSmartWorld, a Collingwood, Ont., company that optimizes meeting productivity. Though worth it, standup desks do require a financial investment from your employer: Prices can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand.

For meetings that are too complex to conduct while walking, try standing around a flip chart, a whiteboard or one of Weil's favourites: a huge white sheet of paper that is adhered to a wall and runs the length of a room. "You get a better chance of having good ideas come out of a visual reference point, rather than during a walking meeting," says Weil.

Change your commute
You might not be able to shorten your commute, but Clark says you can use it to strike work items off your to-do list, thereby freeing up time to take standing breaks at the office. Take phone calls or send emails while you're commuting via transit or carpooling as a passenger (for safety's sake, she doesn't favour phone meetings while driving, even hands-free). "Try to negotiate with your employer to start the workday when you log on at the beginning of your commute," she says. Park a little farther from your office building or, if you work in a highrise, get off the elevator early and hike it a couple of floors.

If you're a transit rider, get off the bus one stop early, stand for part of your trip while discreetly balancing on alternate legs, and carry your purse or gym bag on a different shoulder every day. Also be sure to set aside time for daily exercise. According to a new University of Waterloo study, commuters who make time for daily physical activity are more satisfied with their lives than commuters who do not. "It doesn't have to be done all at once in an hour," says Clark. "If you've got 15 minutes in the morning, get outside and walk for seven minutes, then turn around and come back."

Check out these 3 fitness tools to transform your sedentary ways and  helpful moves to battle back pain.

This content is vetted by medical experts

This story was originally part of "Stand and Deliver" in the September 2015 issue.
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Standing desks and other smart ways to make your workday healthier