Is Your Desk Job Bad for Your Health?

Sharon Gavin used to spend all day on her feet. Now she has a full-time desk job-and the transition has been a painful one.

Sharon Gavin used to spend all day on her feet. Now she has a full-time desk job-and the transition has been a painful one.

In 2002, after 12 years as a nurse, Gavin took a new job that requires her to spend the bulk of her day in front of a computer screen. The switch to a more sedentary work life has left her with nerve pain in her neck, back, and left shoulder.

'This is too much sitting; that was too much standing,' says Gavin, 57, a patient safety specialist at a pharmaceutical company in Wilmington, Del.

Gavin's problems aren't uncommon. The hazards of sitting all day long-whether you're staring at a computer screen at work or watching TV on the couch at home-are better understood now than ever. In recent years, researchers have linked too much sitting to back pain, repetitive stress injuries, obesity, and even an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

So what's a desk jockey to do? If quitting your job and applying to become a park ranger isn't in the cards, there are a number of other steps you can take to stay healthy at work. For instance, you could improve your workspace ergonomics, swap your office chair for an exercise ball, or ask your employer for a treadmill desk (really).

But the first step is to get moving. Stretching your legs and moving around for just five minutes each hour is enough to do a body good (although more activity is even better).

'As long as you have a way to get your body into multiple positions throughout your workday, that's really the solution that you should be looking for,' says Katy Bowman, an expert on biomechanics and the director of the Restorative Exercise Institute, in Ventura, Calif. 'It doesn't have to be expensive.'

What's so bad about sitting?
Studies suggest that sitting for hours on end-regardless of calorie intake and exercise-is harmful. This may be because immobile muscles lose the ability to metabolize fats and sugar as efficiently as they should, which could promote high cholesterol and up diabetes risk.

As far back as the late 1950s, a study found that people with sedentary jobs (bus drivers) were twice as likely as those with active jobs (mailmen) to develop cardiovascular disease. More recently, extended daily TV watching and time on the computer-which, like desk jobs, involve long periods of time sitting still-have been linked to a greater risk of metabolic syndrome, a constellation of health problems that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

In addition, poor workplace habits can bring on aches, pains, and other troubles that can be disabling, in some cases. Sitting all day can flatten out the curve of the lower back, for instance, and can put a strain on the upper body, shoulders, and arms.

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Anne Harding
Last Updated: June 22, 2010

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