A Workout at Work: Advice for the Deskbound to Lose Weight

Summer vacations are over for most people, so it’s time to head back to the daily grind, But work today does not usually mean breaking a sweat. More and more of us are spending our 9 to 5 at a desk and we are less healthy as a result.

A study published in May by the online journal PLoS One estimates that American are burning more than 100 fewer calories per day in the workplace than they did just a few decades ago, when fewer jobs were confined to a desk.

“We’ve had massive changes in the work place environment, and in this case it’s a loss of physically active jobs,” said lead author Tim Church, an exercise researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.

Church and his colleagues fount that the number of people in jobs requiring moderate physical activity decreased from 48 percent in 1960 to 20 percent in 2008. The researchers also found a match between the drop in calories burned and increased in average weight during the past five decades.

A few creative types have come up with ideas to increase workplace activity, For instance, endocrinologist James Levine of the Mayo Clinic has promoted the treadmill desk, which lets you walk slowly as you work at an attached desktop; factory made models cost $2,000 and up. There are under step machines such as the $195 Gamercize PC Sport; if you stop pedaling, your mouse or keyboard stop working, To add upper body exercises, there’s the $599 GymGym, an office chair equipped with built-in resistance bands.

But you don’t have to spend that much money to get a workout. Fitness experts are also promoting low-cost – if occasionally funny-looking – options for improving your fitness during office hours. Some of our Washing Post colleagues tried them out, as you can see in the accompanying graphic.

Toni Yancey, a researcher at the UCLA School or Public Health, has developed and written a book about a 10-minute exercise routine called “Instant Recess.” It includes both strength training and aerobic exercises that can be done within the boundaries of a cubicle – moves such as tricep kicks, knee lifts and hamstring curls.

“They’re simple movements that can be done by everyone, even people with extra weight and disabilities,” said Yancey, who added that the concept has been adopted by hundreds of offices, schools and other organizations.

Many of the moves involve the lower body, which has large groups that can burn more calories than the upper body, Yancey said. Ideally, she said, people should do the exercises twice a day – once in the mid-morning and once in the afternoon- to break up long periods of sitting.

The program has an enthusiastic following among a group of employees at the Los Angeles County Health Department who have been doing it for more than five years. Some workers have commented that the routine wakes them up better than a cup or coffee, said Cynthia Harding, the department’s director or Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health.

A study published in 2008 by the journal Preventing Chronic Disease reported on a group of 271 participants at the Mexican Ministry of Health who did Yancey’s exercises for 10 minutes every workday. After a year, the group’s average waistline decreased by 1.6 centimeters (0.6 inches). Men, in particular, lowered their body mass index (BMI), while women showed a decreased in diastolic blood pressure.

Yancey and her fellow researchers at UCLA are now in the third year of a five year, National Institutes of Health-funded study of program sites in Los Angeles County to compare those participating with those not. Data from a pilot version of the study presented at a National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute meeting in 2009 showed that participants maintained their BMI, while workers who didn’t participate had their BMI increase on average.

Alice Burron, a spokeswomen for the American Council on Exercise, recommended a more intense alternative to Yancey’s routine: plyometric exercises. These are defined by fast, powerful movements and include side lunges and jump squats. According to Burron, plyometric exercises require lots or muscles, strength and calories.

“If you can, find a way to move both your upper and lower body,” Burron said. She recommended that workers lift weights with their arms (you don’t need dumbbells; a water bottle or stapler could be sufficient) as they perform lower-body movements. “When you add the arms, you increase the intensity.”

Over the course of 10 minutes, plyometric exercises might get workers sweaty, so Burron recommended lowering the overall intensity by mixing her exercises with the aerobics of Yancey’s routine. Church, the author of the PLos study, said office exercises aren’t the best way to improve workplace fitness. He recommended using a pedometer.

“You don’t appreciate how sedentary you are until you start using a step counter,” Church said. The device shock people into changing their behavior, Church said, as well as help them achieve their fitness goals.

The average American walks a little more that 6,000 steps- about 3 miles each day, yet much of the research in public health indicates that we should be walking roughly 10.000 steps, or approximately 5 miles. According to Catrine Tudor-Locke, a walking behavior researcher and co-author of the workplace study, walking fewer than 5,000 steps per day qualifies someone as sedentary; she suspects that many people who sit at their desk every day fall into this category.

Pushing for the recommended 10,000 steps might then seem like a lofty goal, but those who walk very little should not be discouraged. An increase of just 2,000 to 2,500 steps each day can lead to modest improvement in weight loss and blood pressure, Tudor-Locke said.

A review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2007 found that a pedometer, on average, increased the number of steps a person took each day by more than 2,100 and it increased overall physical activity by nearly 27 percent.

Across studies, there were also statistically significant decreases in BMI and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

 

Sources: Toni Yancey, professor of health services¬† at UCLA and author of the get-moving book “Instant Recess”; Alice Burron, exercise physiologist and spokeswomen for the American Council on Exercise; Catrine Tudor-Locke, who studies waling behavior at Pennington Biomedical Research