Until a little over a year ago, exercise and movement was a regular part of my day throughout the day. Before, my day was split into intervals of one to three hours of sitting and in between, I would be racing from patient room to patient room or walking between buildings. In between classes, I would head to the gym for a workout. With the completion of graduate school and the acquisition of a shiny new job, though, 10.5 hours of my day four days a week were accounted for sitting in a chair looking at a computer or a phone. I know I’m not alone. Most Americans’ jobs entail a large amount of sitting and doing computer work nowadays. And it’s literally killing us.
Shortly into my new job, I began having back, leg, shoulder, finger, wrist, and arm pain despite exercising for hours every day outside of work. I was going to a PT on a weekly basis because of this pain. I felt like I had aged by at least a decade in a few months. I realized this job was going to shorten my life if something didn’t change. Good health is direly important to me (having not had much of it until I was into college). And so I started fighting a battle to prevent this from being my future. The battle entailed educating myself, my colleagues, and my employer, and then advocating for all of the above. I wanted to make it different for me and for everyone who would be affected by this instilled lifestyle most people passively accept as part of a job and making money.
My first battle: A Sit/Stand Desk
Education: I learned from arguments with my husband that without evidence as proof, I would never convince him of anything I believed. I take the same attitude with most any time I want to persuade someone of something (especially work-related items). Therefore, the first step to every battle I decide to take up is educating myself to understand the subject as thoroughly as possible. In this case, my main goal was to educate myself on just how good or bad sitting for as long as I was every day actually was for my body. Turns out it’s pretty freaking bad. I also researched the alternative desk situations out there, how much they cost (both individually and in bulk), and other companies that have begun to use these types of desks. I also talked to the owner of my husband’s company, who bought sit/stand desks in bulk for his workers. I asked him if he would be willing to be one of my “professional references” in this battle (he agreed to) and quoted him in my discussions with management.
Make your case: I am much better at writing than I am at confronting someone in person, so I decided this tactic would be best. I contacted the person who is in charge of ergonomics at my job and made him my point person for liaison between myself and upper management making the decision. I wrote a long letter about why sitting all day for our jobs is a problem (to their bottom line and to their employees’ health), verifying that other companies have seen this to be a problem and changed, and how they can change this as well. I also pointed out what efforts I made to solve this problem and why I cannot solve it myself. I asked the ergonomics contact to forward it to whoever would make a decision about this….and then waited. *If you would like a sample letter to use at your workplace, please comment on this post and I will email one to you.
Be Assertive and Don’t Give Up:
It took me 5+ months to acquire the sit/stand desk, but I finally did! (Of course, no overhauls of desk situations for anyone else has occurred…)
There were plenty of road blocks along the way (namely lack of communication back to me), but I just kept kindly reminding people every few weeks by email, phone, or in person where we were in the process and getting feedback. There is a difference between assertive and being aggressive. Unfortunately, I think I may have crossed that line near the end when I was fed up with the timeline (or lack thereof). If you can, be patient but stern and most likely things will continue moving in the direction you want. However, there may be a time and place to show someone you are serious about accomplishing your goal.
Find Supporters: Because I was so new into my job, I tried to keep the sit/stand desk battle under wraps for a while. I avoided telling my boss, but it ended up getting back around to him anyway. I found out he was supportive of my endeavors and helped to coordinate the efforts. If you have someone rooting for you and with more power than you to accomplish your desires, meeting your goals become much easier.
My second battle: Changing Myself
Even before getting the sit/stand desk, I knew sitting for so long was doing the most amount of damage but that I could also be doing better for myself beyond that as well. Below is what I did to be healthier at work.
Took more breaks- I know there are many jobs that are pretty bad about giving breaks, but I am lucky enough to have one where my boss actually encourages us to take a 10 minute walk when things get overwhelming. I decided to do that more, even though I could really only get away for 10 minutes or so at a time due to the nature of my job (needing to take urgent calls that come in). I take a walk with my friend at work multiple times to get water every day. I made taking breaks part of my routine socializing and “breather” time. That helped with moving more and helped mentally as well.
Stretching while working– I am the weird person who brought my exercise ball and theraband to work. It forced me to do my PT exercises when there was a free moment and it allowed me to at the very least stretch my back on the exercise ball. Since then, I’ve added neck and wrist stretches to my repertoire and downloaded an awesome app called Ergonomics (download it here) which not only reminds you of stretching at whatever intervals you want, but also has stretches included in the app and a timer to make sure you are stretching for long enough to be effective.
Better posture- One of the things I worked on the most in PT was actually correct posture. After years of sitting and standing in horribly awkward (NOT ergonomic) positions, I had made my body actually think these bad positions were normal. My proprioception (feelings of how you are in space physically) was all off, and my awesome PT helped to teach my body what “correct” posture really is. I am by far not perfect about my posture, but it is better and at least now I know what should be correct at least. 😉
Healthy snacks and meals- I know I am not the only one who eats things they would never eat at home at work simply because you are hungry and food is there and you wouldn’t otherwise have that accessible at home. I am a sweet-holic. I admit it. And therefore if I have no food left and I am hungry and someone has chocolate sitting on their table free for the taking…well, I take it. I don’t like myself for it, but I’m soooo hungry (my brain says) and so I give in. Instead, my friend at work and I trade off bringing in healthy snacks so that when the craving hits, we have healthy food and not chocolate to munch on. Of course, if someone brings homemade berry turnovers in…well, all bets are off. I also bring my own homemade lunches in every day both to eat healthier and to save some money.
Drinking water- I am not good about drinking water. I never have been. I’m okay with the taste of it (or lack thereof), but I just have a hard time remembering to drink until I’m smacking my lips wondering why they are so dry. Water is so vital to health and so beneficial, so it really should be higher on my (and your) list of priorities (Read more about why here.). Additionally, if you are trying to lose weight, drinking more water helps dramatically with feeling more full and causes you to eat less and thus lose weight. The means of forcing myself to drink more water is to get water as soon as I come into work in the morning and finish it by the time lunch rolls around. Once lunch comes, I refill again and aim to finish that before I leave. Honestly, I should be drinking even more water, but for me right now, this is still progress. I know many people who buy a Nalgene and fill it and use permanent marker to mark each liter; they compete with themselves about drinking more than they did the day before and this helps motivate them.
Calm Your Mind- Work can be a stressful place and stress can increase cortisol levels. Cortisol levels increased over a long period of time is extremely harmful to your body. When you feel overwhelmed, it can be helpful to do deep breathing exercises (see below for how), brief meditation, or take a walk in nature. If you can’t take a break, imagine all the times you were able to overcome obstacles at work and in life and consider how you might be able to become more efficient so you aren’t as stressed about all the work piling up (Read more about being efficient here.).
Exercising during lunch- Though it is nice to have a whole lunch break to devote to eating, socializing, and maybe reading a book, I find it extra refreshing to eat lunch at my desk and during my lunch break taking a walk or even heading to the climbing gym and fitting in a quick 30 minute bouldering and traversing session. Yoga would also be great too. Refreshing our bodies also refreshes our mind and takes out all that excess energy we have while we are cooped up in our offices. Additionally, exercising suppresses our urge to eat in general and also makes our body desire healthier, more nutritious foods instead of empty calories. I am also always much more productive after having gone to the gym and out of the office. I’m sure you will be too!
Power Naps- I might get some flak for this one. I am lucky enough to have my own office with my own door that I can close. If I don’t feel like I got enough sleep the night before or just am generally dragging, I take part of my lunch break to have a power nap. I shut the lights and the door, lay down on the floor, and put my sweater behind my head. I make an alarm for 20 minutes on my phone and with some deep breathing exercises, soon enough I am heading off to sleep. Before I know it, I wake up refreshed and rejuvenated. If you need some help getting to sleep for a power nap, see the below deep breathing exercises.
Deep Breathing Exercises: I was introduced to deep breathing at various times in my life but only recently have I perfected it for myself. It has helped dramatically with reducing stress in the short- and long-term as well as relaxing me enough to sleep (being a former insomniac). Here are my tips: Turn off the lights. Lay down on your back with your head on a low pillow and your arms either at your side or on top of your stomach near your belly button. If you want to, you can play one of these soundtracks to help relax as well. Close your eyes and begin to take deep breaths through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Your stomach should be rising and falling with your breath (NOT your chest, which is how most of us breathe normally). Make sure your teeth are not touching; your jaw should be relaxed (almost feels like you are about to yawn). This, I’ve found, is one of the most important parts to relaxing because I tend to tense my jaw (and the accessory muscles in my neck automatically get activated too) when I am stressed. Focus on your breath. Allow your mind to calm. When a thought comes up, don’t dwell on it; imagine it drifting away. Focus on relaxing each muscle throughout your body. Soon, you will be totally relaxed…and likely asleep.
My third battle: Changing My Work Atmosphere
Changing the Lunch Situation
Before I could implement most of the above changes, I needed to change some basic unspoken rules at work in order to provide time to take a long enough break for a walk or going to the gym. When I first began working, it was expected that one person was manning the phone for urgent calls during lunch, and since everything needed to be “fair,” it had become assumed that everyone would sit in that person’s office and eat lunch together every day. This was great for being social, perhaps, but after being in an office without windows and not moving for hours, I was desperate to get out of the office. After some persuasion, everyone agreed to changing this. Most people were not happy with the situation, but the general attitude was “Oh, that just won’t change. It’s how we’ve been doing things for X many years.” And yet, it only took a few discussions and things were different. So many people complain about things at work, but don’t take action. Don’t be that person- Things can change if you work at it.
Ask people to participate with you- It isn’t a secret- the more people you have who participate with you in your healthy endeavors, the more likely you are to continue doing those things. Based on this study, it will even increase the calming benefits of exercise by participating with others and make you work harder than you would otherwise by increasing competitiveness. Additionally, you can feel good about yourself inspiring others to take on healthy ways as well. 🙂
Joining Wellness Organizations at Work
I joined the wellness organization at my work and have been on the committee with endeavors to change the health atmosphere of my company and the health opportunities. Companies have been realizing lately that the health of their employees is important not only to their employees and their employees’ families, but also to productivity and the bottom line. Per this study sponsored by the USDA, health wellness programs have shown effectiveness in helping workers (those participating at least) increase the frequency of exercising in their life, stop smoking, lose weight (10-13 lbs in 5 years of participation), reduce their total cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and consume more fruits and veggies and decrease their fat and energy intake. Companies also saw improvements of 2.5% in the cost of coverage, mainly due to reduction in inpatient costs (contributed 2/3 of that 2.5%) and reduction in outpatient costs and prescription drugs (28 and 10% respectively of that 2.5%). The wellness program effectiveness is only as good as the people organizing it, however. Be part of your work effort and see not only improvements in yourself, but also your coworkers! Be a great role model and reap the rewards.
All three battles have been a great learning experience for me. Of course, the last battle continues to this day and I’m assuming will be an ongoing project of mine throughout my time at this job. I hope this has inspired you to make changes at your work for your health and your coworkers’ as well!