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4 Tips for Staying Healthy Despite Sitting at a Desk All Day

The vast majority of us spend the vast majority of our day sitting. Even if we don’t work at a desk, we spend time in the car, on the couch, on the train, in the coffee shop—the places in life where we sit are virtually endless. It’s simply the way modern life is primarily designed.

But it is possible to be healthy despite sitting all day. And while our workdays may already feel over-full, it’s surprisingly simple to work in some healthy movement habits that can make a world of difference not only in how our bodies feel, but also in how effective our thinking is.

Curious how not sitting could be a benefit to your body and your brain? Read on.

1. Go Pomodoro

The “Pomodoro Technique” is a method of time management created by Francesco Cirillo. The simplest version of it is that you work for twenty minutes and then take a five-minute break. Cirillo named the technique after his kitchen timer, which was shaped like a tomato (“Pomodoro” is the Italian word for “tomato”).

You, of course, are free to use any timer device you like (probably something on your phone will be the easiest), but the idea is that you take a “break” every twenty minutes throughout your entire day. And, if we are focusing on optimizing our physical and mental health despite sitting, that means when your timer goes off:

  • Stand up and stretch (especially your upper back and hamstrings)
  • Walk once around the block
  • Do twenty squats
  • Do twenty push-ups
  • Spend five minutes practicing deep breathing
  • Do walking lunges to the water cooler and back
  • Put on your headphones, close your eyes, and follow a guided meditation

Pick an activity you feel would be beneficial to you—physically or mentally—and do it on these five-minute breaks. Every couple of hours, take a longer break.

This may sound like a lot of “down” time from the real work you have at the office, and your inner voice might tell you this Pomodoro thing is going to get in the way of your productivity. But just give it a try—you may be surprised just how much more productive you become when you take more “timeouts” over the course of your day.

2. Don’t Buy a Water Bottle

Common advice when it comes to staying hydrated is to buy a big water bottle, keep it at your desk, and slowly drink its contents over the course of the day. There’s nothing wrong with that advice, but we suggest you experiment with completely ignoring it.

Instead, get yourself an 8-ounce glass and a pad of sticky notes. Make a commitment to a certain number of ounces of water you’re going to drink each day. We recommend 1/3 to 1/2 your weight in ounces. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, aim to drink 50-75 ounces of water each day. You might begin by aiming for 64 ounces per day. That means you are committing yourself to filling that 8-ounce glass eight times per day. The point of which is—you therefore have to get up to walk to the water cooler or dispenser eight times per day.

So, don’t buy a big jug. Keep a reasonably sized glass or bottle at your desk. Jot down a hash mark each time you go to fill it, and don’t stop talking “water walks” until you’ve hit your daily goal.

3. Eat at Your Desk and Walk at Lunch

Chances are, if you’re generally working on making healthier choices, you may already be packing your lunch every day. If you can swing it, eat your lunch at your desk during your work hours and save your lunch time for walking. Or, if that makes eating feel stressful (which we don’t want), reserve thirty minutes of your lunch time for eating and thirty minutes for walking. Just walk fifteen minutes away from the office, turn around and come back.                                                                                               

However long you walk, don’t worry about walking at a fast pace. If you have fresh clothes to change into and want to turn this time into a “workout,” that’s fine. But you can also walk at an easier pace and just let your mind wander. Try not to bring your cell phone, or at least keep it out of sight in your pocket or purse. This walk break is for both your mind and your body. Being free of the restrictions of your office and desk will get your blood flowing, and possibly your problem-solving brain juices, as well. We find some of our best and most creative thoughts come when we’re walking (also in the shower, but that’s a different article).

4. Don’t Sit—Stand

Standing desks were all the rage for a while, but not without reason. Sitting (and most of us sit “badly,” at that) disrupts everything from our posture to our digestive system to our nervous system. Switching to a standing desk can help with a lot of these issues.

That said, transitioning from sitting for eight hours per day to standing for eight hours is not something you should do all at once. It’s actually possible to hurt yourself by standing still given that your muscles and tendons will not be used to this. And, even in the long run, standing for eight hours a day is not something great to aspire to, either. It still represents a stationary lifestyle, as opposed to one filled with a variety of movement. Given that, the healthiest thing may be to alternate between the sitting and standing (and also integrate the frequent movement breaks we’ve been talking about).

So, yes, investigate replacing your traditional desk with a standing desk, but make sure it’s one you can easily adjust between sitting and standing heights. When you first start standing, do it for small periods at a time (you’ll be surprised how tired it may make you or how cranky your feet or calves may become), and then slowly increase your standing time. If your body does feel tight in certain areas, use your Pomodoro breaks to walk out the tension or do appropriate stretches.

Which Tip Are You Going to Try?

While each of these four tips is a little different, there is a common theme—break up your day with healthy habits. Don’t spend all day sitting in one place or one position. Move around, change your breathing, change your position and posture, change your thoughts. See if you can combine healthy habits into bite-sized chunks of activity: hydration and movement by going to the water dispenser, deep breathing and movement by going for walks outside, etc.

By “resetting” yourself in all these different ways, you will have a more productive and creative workday—and your body will reward you with increased health, mobility, and energy.

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