Do you sit all day for work? This is the best way to break the cycle

Despite the exaggerated headlines, sitting isn’t the new smoking. And standing desks haven’t and won’t revolutionize anything. But there is an issue related to sitting for the majority of your day that affects mostly people who do computer-based jobs, and certainly a majority of people who work remotely.

Gretchen Reynolds at The Washington Post did a good job of summarizing new research on the subject in a recent article on active couch potatoes(Opens in a new window)or people who do exercise in one or two bursts a day but spend the rest of their time inactive. In short: 30 minutes of exercise a day is not enough to compensate for the remaining 23.5 hours of sitting and sleeping. The study of 3,702 Finns(Opens in a new window) found that those who exercised diligently for 30 minutes a day but spent the rest of their time sitting and sleeping had elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and body fat levels.

Breaking the cycle of sitting still all day requires first thinking about “activity” a little differently, and then making a change that lasts.

Why we sit

“Active couch potato” is not a new term. It goes back at least to 2010(Opens in a new window)when researchers first began to understand what was wrong with the knowledge worker lifestyle, even for those who actually exercise.

Neither the duration nor the frequency of the exercise is the problem. The problem is inactivity. Exercising is still good for you; Being inactive for too long is bad.

The hygiene analogy

When I write about personal productivity or organization, I often make analogies with hygiene. Hygiene is created by consistently and regularly performing an activity or action. And that’s the way it has to be.

Take brushing your teeth. Most people stick to the rule of brushing their teeth twice a day for two minutes each time. This is different than brushing your teeth for four minutes once a day or for 28 minutes once a week. Or what if you only brushed your teeth once a month for 120 minutes? The number of minutes isn’t the only thing that matters – it’s the schedule, including interval and frequency.

Another way to think about it, which might actually be more accurate, is that you should never walk more than about 12 hours without Brush teeth. How much uninterrupted time without brushing should your teeth be able to withstand?

I read sleep research(Opens in a new window) this does the same flipping of what we usually talk about to instead focus on the opposite. Instead of saying how often or how long a person should sleep, some researchers speak of vigilance. Too many consecutive waking hours have a negative impact on your health.

Top tips to stay productive when working from home

How long can you be inactive before it becomes a problem?

In the same way, we can ask how long I can be inactive before it becomes a problem. Put aside your 30 or 60 minutes of exercise a day and instead think about how long you stay relatively still in one position.

As far as I know, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how long a person can sit still in repeated sessions for months and years before it becomes a problem.

One ergonomics expert I interviewed said his research suggests people working in a seated position should move every 20 minutes. “[T]Take a short break where you stand up, stretch out a bit, maybe for a minute or two. Or better yet, go for a walk and make yourself a cup of tea or coffee,” Alan Hedge told me. But Hedge, professor emeritus at Cornell University, did not study heart disease or body fat. His groups looked for ways to prevent injury and improve circulation, comfort and performance.

In fact, moving for a minute or two every 20 minutes sounds ridiculously optimistic for anyone who finds a state of flow in their work. This is perhaps the reason for the Pomodoro technique(Opens in a new window) (which advocates working 25 minutes straight and then taking a two to five minute break) has fallen out of favor with some who now prefer more flexible “focus sprints” that use the same general principles but increase the work time to around 50 minutes .

Again, these techniques were designed to help people focus and be productive, not to provide any health benefits.

Standing desks are not the solution

Standing desks and sit-stand desks are not a solution to the problem at hand. When you are at work, you are still inactive. Standing and not moving is no better than sitting and not moving.

A woman works on a laptop at a standing desk

(Image credit: Stand Steady)

When I interviewed Alan Hedge, he explained that standing desks come with a whole host of other problems. The biggest downside is that the ideal time to stand while you work — around eight minutes — is much less than most people realize. After about eight minutes, people start leaning, and that’s not good. If you have a standing desk and enjoy using it, fine. But don’t convince yourself that just standing is a substitute for movement. It is not.

The technology that tells us to move

There is no shortage of gadgets and software designed to remind us to move. The problem is that people get angry about it.

For example, your fitness tracker or smartwatch could buzz with a motion alert once an hour. I’ve never met a single person who was able to stick with it for a long period of time, and many people just turn off this annoying feature.

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Disruption apps like Time Out for Mac (free) intentionally lock you out of your computer every few minutes at intervals you set. The people who swear by Time Out and similar apps have often had a work-related injury and desperately need to straighten their wrists or refocus their eyes to heal and be out of pain. I’ve never had injuries like this before, and every time I tried to use Time Out, I put off the break indefinitely. Taking a forced break at a fairly random time is extremely disruptive. It also differs from the Pomodoro Technique in that you have to worry about the app delaying a break (annoying), while Pomodoro lets you just finish your thought before getting to a move.

The settings screen for the pause app called Time Out

(Image credit: PCMag)

Healing Habits

In my experience studying personal productivity and writing about remote work, success is rooted in habit, not technology. Technological tools can act as hints or signposts to help you take breaks, but if the habit of taking breaks isn’t there, the tools won’t work. The habit must take precedence over the tool.

When you’re in the work groove, what actually makes you stop and take a break that involves movement? A crying child, of course. Sometimes boring. What about the need to use the bathroom? A trick I mention in my book on remote work(Opens in a new window) for people who have a hard time remembering pauses is to fill a large pitcher with water and make sure you’ve drunk it all by a certain time. Then, when you have to pee, you will definitely get up and move.

You’d have to drink a lot of water in a day for this trick to be enough on its own, so you need more habits to help you get out of your chair regularly. Some ideas: Check your mailbox once a day; If you have a dog, add another short walk to your routine. or find a simple task you can do daily like watering or pruning plants, stocking up a bird feeder, making lunch an hour or so before you actually eat it. If you’re an on-site employee, take a trip to the water dispenser; Clean or tidy your workspace at the same time every day; or simply take a tour of the building after each meeting.

The most important part is making these actions a habit. You have to do them daily for them to stick.

Movement and balance for your health and happiness

Figuring out how not to be inactive for long periods of time is critical to your health and happiness. If you’re not healthy, neither you nor your employer will benefit, so it’s in both of your best interests to find small activities throughout the day to keep you healthy.

Finding a happy and healthy work-life balance is difficult. However, remember that your work is a marathon, not a sprint. If you don’t take care of yourself and burn out early or have increasing health problems at a young age, nobody benefits. Be kind to yourself, put your health first, and find ways each day to take small actions toward those goals.

For more healthy working advice, check out our list of 20 tips for working from home.

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