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How to move more at work

Finding ways to build movement into your day can deliver huge health benefits – now and into the future.

Carmel Sparke
October 2018

Your humble chair may not look like a dangerous piece of equipment, but it could be putting your health at risk. More and more research is showing how sitting for hours on end raises your chance of a developing a range of illnesses and even dying early.

Australians are parking their bums for, on average, more than 9 hours a day – whether that’s driving, studying, sitting in front of a computer, on public transport, or watching TV.

Why sitting for long periods of time can be a problem

It’s not just the overall hours of inactivity that’s of concern, but also the patterns of how we sit. Human bodies like to move, and while sitting or lying (apart from sleep) large muscle groups are inactive, slowing blood circulation and the enzymes involved in moving glucose and fats from the blood.

“When we sit for long periods we really aren’t engaging those muscles… there’s huge implications from it,” says Professor David Dunstan, head of the Physical Activity Laboratory at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

He was involved in research that showed the remarkable benefits of breaking up sitting time with just short bouts of regular walking. In a group of overweight people, walking for just 2 minutes every 20 minutes lowered their glucose and insulin levels after a meal, driving down their risksof diabetes and heart disease.

Researchers are yet to pin down the precise amount of recommended movement time but Prof Dustan suggests getting up every half hour to activate those leg and bum muscles. “It’s about turning on the engine, and keeping it turned on through the day,” he says.

Tips for people who sit all day

Fire up those big muscle groups with these tips from exercise physiologist Drew Harrisberg.

  1. Maintain a balanced posture when sitting to help reduce back and neck pain. Keep your pelvis in a neutral position, with your back supported by the chair. Lengthen your neck, so your head is balanced over your torso rather than forward, and your chin is gently tucked in. 
  2. Go for a walk outside at lunchtime to get the blood moving. “It wakes up your cardiorespiratory system, releases feel-good endorphins, and clears your mind of clutter,” says Harrisberg.
  3. Try an exercise ‘snack’. Think a few squats or tricep dips, or take a walking meeting outside.
  4. Walk up a flight of stairs instead of taking the lift, and do 2 stairs at a time if you need a challenge. 
  5. Break up your sitting time with a couple of stretches to help keep your circulation moving and lengthen tight muscles. 
  6. Arrange your space so it’s comfortable and ergonomically sound. A simple approach is to set up your chair so that your elbows are horizontal on the desk and your feet are flat on the floor, using a footrest if needed. Your computer screen should be at arm’s length.

Tips for people who stand at work

Even if you stand all day, there are health implications to consider. People who spend the day on their feet, such as factory workers or those in retail, can face adverse effects too. Research shows they’re at risk of ongoing back pain and other chronic illnesses.

If you’re standing for more than 6 hours at a time, it’s important to incorporate movement where possible.

Exercises such as calf raises boost the body’s circulation. Staying active when standing, by regularly shifting your weight from foot to foot for example, also helps.

Wear comfortable, shock-absorbent footwear and even consider getting a rubber mat to help absorb some of the stress if you stand in one spot for hours on end, physiotherapist Justine Trethewey says.

Aim for good posture: stand evenly on both legs, with two thirds of your weight in your heels, your knees unlocked but not bent and your pelvis in a neutral position. Avoid craning your head forward to look at the computer, or learning on one hip.

For people who are on their feet but on the move, like nurses, teachers, tradesmen and hospitality workers, other postural factors come into play.

Teachers, for example, often bend forward to look at their students’ work. Trethewey suggests kneeling or sitting next to students to make it easier on backs.

To sum up: move more

Whether your job requires you to sit, stand or even move around all day, the message is a simple one from Prof Dunstan: “It’s finding ways to get that movement throughout the day – basically moving more.” 

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