A Lancet study from earlier this year found that people need to do at least an hour of physical activity a day to counter the negative health impacts of every eight hours spent sitting.
“The evidence suggests that if you are sitting for long periods of time without breaking it up, then any physical activity that you do is less beneficial for your health,” says Dr Fehmidah Munir, a health psychologist and reader at Loughborough University’s school of sport, exercise and health science.
If you are chained to your desk for hours on end, it is important to shoehorn in a bit of exercise. Cycling to work, getting off the tube or bus a stop earlier, taking the stairs, visiting colleagues in different parts of the office rather than emailing, are some of the many ways to do this, says Dr John Giles, an NHS consultant radiologist and medical director at Benenden. “Just half an hour of exercise a day can make a huge difference,” he says.
Take your lunch break
It is too easy to skip your lunch break and shovel in a sandwich while staring a computer screen. But taking time out in the middle of the working day is another way to cram in some exercise, even if it’s a short burst. “Just getting up and going for a walk after lunch is a brilliant idea as it helps to normalise blood sugar levels quicker so there’s no post-lunch slump,” says Jo Blood, managing director of Posture People, a commercial furniture consultancy.
Another way to make your lunch break more active is to exercise with a group of coworkers, says Julia Scodie, founder of Exercise in the City, a fitness group which runs office-based exercise classes. “You don’t need too much room, just move desks and chairs aside in a meeting room. Speak to your HR department about setting something up,” she says. If space is an issue, perhaps organise a group run or walk, she suggests.
Avoid neck and eye strain
As work becomes more sedentary we are spending more hours at a computer screen, which can cause eye strain and headaches. It is important, therefore, to take regular eye breaks. The 20:20:20 rule, where every 20 minutes you stare at something 20ft away for 20 seconds, helps. Set a timer or use an app such as Eyecare to prompt you.
To reduce eye and neck strain, adjust your seat height so your eyes line up with the top on the computer screen, says Blood. Consider the lighting. “Try experimenting with a lamp by your desk, or a different colour tint on the screen might help,” she says. Apps such as ScreenRule and f.lux change the colour of the screen to reduce straining blue light.
Walking around the office has an additional benefit, says Scodie. “Where you can, try to speak to colleagues face to face or call clients rather than sending emails. This can really help to reduce screen time.”
Dealing with stress at work
Workplace stress is a growing problem. As well as affecting the mental health of employees it can manifest itself physically, whether that’s back and neck pain, stomach aches or headaches.
In stressful situations the fight or flight response can be activated, says Justin Eade, an active workplace consultant and digital health innovator at Glimpse, a gesture technology company. “When we experience this at less appropriate times it can be very distressing and upsetting,” he says.
Maintaining physical activity at work and removing yourself from the task or issue at hand can help, says Andy Magill, a vitality coach at the health insurer VitalityHealth. “This is where meditation and deep breathing can be beneficial, as they allow you to gain a clear mind before returning to address what needs to be done.”
Hotdesking, where employees do not have designated seats, is on the rise as employers look to reduce costs. “Hotdesking can be brilliant and evil all at the same time,” says Blood. While getting people to change places every day is thought to create a more collaborative work environment, the ergonomics of the different workspaces could cause health problems. “When ever you go to a new desk you’ve got to take the time to alter it to suit you,” says Blood. “Change the chair height, adjust the back angle, get the screen to the right height. If you can’t adjust things then your employer really needs to look at the hotdesking environment,” she says.
Dodging the snacks
To work in an office is to run a daily gauntlet of endless snacks, meeting-room sandwiches and pastries and cake-pushing colleagues. The combination of sitting at your desk all day and being surrounded by workplace Bake Off fans can have a negative impact on your health.
Healthy snacks do not have to be “boring or sensible and tasteless”, says Nicki Cresswell, a wellbeing coordinator at the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association. “Cheese is a great snack in moderation as is dark chocolate,” she says.
Eating a good lunch will also help curb snacking. “Preparing food the night before can seem like a pain but it has great payback, literally,” says Cresswell. Lunches that must be eaten with a knife and fork have the added bonus of preventing you from using your keyboard or taking calls while eating. If it is too much work to prepare, then you can team up with colleagues and take it in turns to bring in a healthy lunch each day.
Giles has a simple technique for resisting the temptation to snack, which also helps you get up more and avoid headaches: drink more water. “Your brain often gets confused with thirst versus hunger messages,” he says.