How to Sit Less if You Have a Desk Job

young female call center operator

You know that getting too little exercise is bad for your health. What you might not realize is that sitting too much in itself, even if you never miss a daily workout, carries significant health risks. Research shows that spending hour upon hour in a chair is associated with an increased risk for:

If you have a desk job, those hours of chair-time can add up quickly. Let’s say you spend seven hours a day seated at your desk. Add an hour of commuting and three hours of watching TV and checking social media in the evening, and you’re up to 11 hours of sitting per day. In a large study from Australia, people who sat for 11 or more hours daily had a 40 percent greater chance of dying within three years than those who sat for less than four hours.

In short, if you sit all day at work, it’s time to stand up for your health — literally. Try these proven, practical strategies for sitting less and moving more if you have a desk job:

Don’t just sit there. Physiological processes that help your body manage fats and sugar in the blood can stall when you sit too long. According to the Australian researchers, this may set off a cascade of unhealthy changes inside your body, including decreased high-density lipoprotein (HDL) known as the “good” cholesterol, increased fat in your blood (triglycerides), and reduced sensitivity to insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of sugar in your blood.

Simply getting out of your chair more may help counteract these changes. You don’t even have to work up a sweat. In a study of overweight, middle-aged workers with sedentary jobs, walking for two minutes every 20 minutes improved their blood sugar and insulin levels. A gentle stroll was just as effective as a brisk walk for this purpose.

Does that mean you can skip your morning workout or lunch-hour bike ride? Experts say you should still aim for at least a half-hour of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days. In addition, whenever you’re sitting for an extended period, you should get up and move around for a few minutes at least once an hour.

Find excuses to move. Consider these ways to work more movement into your day:

  • Make phone calls while pacing, rather than sitting down.
  • Walk over to see a co-worker rather than sending an email.
  • Get a drink of water, but don’t go to the closest water fountain.
  • Visit the restroom on a different floor and take the stairs.
  • Ward off achy muscles by standing up and stretching.

Set a reminder alarm. Taking short, frequent movement breaks may sound simple. Yet it’s easy to forget when you’re focused on wading through your email or finishing up a report. Set a reminder alarm on your phone or computer that goes off every hour and don’t ignore it.

Rethink your workspace. The physical layout of your workspace can also help you remember to move. Make a point of not keeping everything within arm’s reach of your desk. Every time you need to replenish supplies or grab a file, you’ll be prompted to get out of your seat.

Be less time-efficient. Let’s say you need to walk down the hall to use the copier and talk with a co-worker. Make two trips rather than one, and you’ll double the amount of walking you do. Of course, you’ll also spend more time on these tasks, and that may be less efficient in the short run. In the long run, however, making a habit of moving helps you stay healthier. And that helps you be more focused, energetic and productive at work.

Take a walking meeting. Walking or standing meetings do more than decrease your sitting time. Research shows that they also foster creativity and collaboration. In one study, people were more excited about a creative project when standing in a room without chairs compared to sitting around a table. They were also less territorial about their ideas, which may be because they were mingling freely rather than staking out individual table space.

Consider an alternative desk. Several companies sell desks that allow you to walk on a treadmill, pedal a stationary bike, or use an elliptical machine while you work. Research has shown that these types of active desks can help office workers burn more calories and get healthier without sacrificing mental focus. On the downside, the desks are a big investment, one that many employers may not be willing to make. Plus, if you think walking and chewing gum is tricky, you might be stymied by walking and using a mouse.

A simpler and often less expensive option is a height-adjustable desk or desktop shelf. This type of desk can be moved up and down, which allows you to alternate between standing and sitting as you work.

Become a role model. Let’s be honest: At first, you may get some strange looks if you start doing lunges by your desk. But if you explain what you’re doing and why, your co-workers are likely to be more supportive, and some may even join you. Over time, you could become the inspiration that helps your whole office minimize their sitting time and maximize their health and well-being.

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