How to stay healthy at the office

Many of us work long hours in an office, and considering how different and distant this is from the ancestral environment to which we are adapted, this could have deleterious health consequences. So here are a couple ways to stay healthy at the office.

Probably the most important consequence of being in an office is that office workers normally sit at desks all day, and this is also the main cause of adverse health.

Sedentary behavior is associated with a large increase in mortality risk, the people in the highest quartile of sedentary time having a six-fold greater risk.

It’s important to note here that sitting or rest of any kind causes bad things to happen in a relatively short time. Even if you’re not generally sedentary, sitting all day in an office is not good. Prolonged bed rest is even worse, and causes a massive loss of muscle, one of the worst things for your health.

Insulin resistance and lipase

Lipoprotein lipase is an enzyme that’s responsible for triglyceride uptake and HDL synthesis, and prolonged sitting leads to suppression of its synthesis.(1)

More importantly, but related to lipase, is that insulin resistance increases with sitting. One day of sitting reduces the action of insulin by around 40% in healthy men and women.(2)

A surprisingly small amount of activity can counteract the increase in insulin sensitivity that sitting causes.

A study was done using overweight or obese adults to see what the effects were of breaking up prolonged sitting. This was a crossover trial, so all the participants completed each condition, which were as follows(3):

  1. Uninterrupted sitting for 7.5 hours
  2. Seated with 2-minute bouts of light walking every 20 minutes
  3. Seated with 2-minute bouts of moderate walking every 20 minutes

After an initial 2-hour period of sitting, participants drank a standardized test drink containing 75 grams of glucose and 50 grams of fat, and their insulin and glucose levels were measured.

The results for glucose:

how to stay healthy at the office

The results for insulin (not shown) were similar. Both light and moderate walking, for 2 minutes out of every 20, substantially improved insulin sensitivity over uninterrupted prolonged sitting.

The lesson here is clear: don’t sit all the time. Doing so could be hazardous to your health.

Noteworthy is that a surprisingly small amount of activity counteracted the effects of sitting. Light walking – light as judged by the participants – was nearly as effective as moderate walking.

So, sitting should be broken up by activity as much as possible. Even a walk down the hall and back (maybe to chat with the administrative assistant) can be beneficial.

The other option is a standing desk. If you can’t get one at work, you could use one at home.

Personally, I like to stand as much as possible, no matter what I’m doing. A standing cocktail hour is a great idea.

Sunlight vs fluorescent lights

Another hazard of office work is being indoors under artificial lighting all day. Fluorescent lighting is the worst in that regard, as its spectrum of light doesn’t match light from the sun. Circadian rhythms can be thrown out of whack.

One simple way to ensure that circadian rhythms are entrained properly even when working at the office is to get sunlight on the way to work, when driving for instance. According to Dr. Daniel Kripke, a psychiatrist who specializes in sleep and light, just driving to work without sunglasses could be enough to offset being indoors all day.

If you work late at the office or another place with fluorescent lighting, consider using blue-blocking glasses, as this will block blue wavelengths of light and promote better sleep.

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Leave a Comment:

Nils says January 6, 2016

Great article. I always recognize a huge difference in well being when I’ve been sitting at the desk all day. While sitting for hours obviously is bad for you, I always wonder if standing for a long time isn’t as well, causing varicose veins and back pain.

    P. D. Mangan says January 7, 2016

    Thanks, Nils. Whether standing has ill effects or not probably depends a lot on type of shoes and the surface one stands on. Since I know little about orthopedics, I won’t venture a guess, although lots of paleo types like those funny “shoes” that are more like socks. I’ve never tried them myself. I don’t think that varicose veins are caused by standing, but again, I don’t know much in this area.

Matt says January 6, 2016

My boss and I have standing desks and we bought one tall chair that we trade halfway through the work day (so we each get 4 hours of standing time). I dig it.

Gary says January 6, 2016

I’ve chosen to sit atop an exercise ball for the past 5+ years instead of a chair at my work desk in my home office. I will never go back to a chair! The ball is very nice to the floor and gives my core something to do while I tap away at my laptop and gab on the phone. I recommend the model with a handful of sand in the bottom to keep it from rolling away when you dismount.

It may take a week or so to get used to regular ball-sitting but you might find it preferable to a lounging in a chair after a while.

Warning! After you get comfortable on your new cushy ball-chair, you may be tempted try some more advanced balancing positions, just to see if you can. I’d avoid doing those while on a conference call in case one goes badly and you drag your laptop and extra monitor off your desk onto yourself to the amusement of all gathered on the speaker phone. No, that’s never happened to me!

As an option to collapsing in a chair or standing at attention, get on the ball! You might like it up there.

As always, excellent points. Thanks for sharing!

    P. D. Mangan says January 7, 2016

    Gary, you are hereby awarded the Rogue Health and Fitness weekly Hardcore Award!

      Gary says January 8, 2016

      Honored!! Thanks…from the core!

      I’m currently using a 75cm from and it’s working well. I’ve also used the Gold’s StayBall. It’s the one with sand inside. So far, neither has unceremoniously dropped me to the floor. I would heed Stephen’s advice to go for the anti-burst model and not an el cheapo. (I was wondering what a burst-event would be like! Thanks, Stephen, for that explosive first-ass account. I’ll assume you didn’t suffer any permanent injuries and have remounted your replacement.)

      I’m 6 ft tall with a 30 inch desktop. I inflate the 75cm so my femur is about parallel to the floor. That’s a good starting point for adjusting to your preference. I’d keep the pump handy for a few days to try different height and pressure settings.

      A few more tips for the ball-curious:
      – Don’t lose the pump! (the plug-pryer tool, if provided, is also handy)
      – Like your car tires, it’ll need a top-off when the ambient office temp drops.
      – Watch out for pointy stuff on the ground in the roll-zone and in your pockets. (and in the hands of small children who venture near your ball)
      – As mentioned before, bad things can happen very quickly when you become overconfident in your ball-balancing abilities.
      – Early core soreness might be your core saying: “Thank you!”
      – After you’ve bonded with it, you might miss your ball if you’re forced back into a chair for more than a day or so.

      Glad to hear of others out there on the ball! Inherent instability is a good thing sometimes.

        Stephen Werner says January 8, 2016

        Not permanent, but persistent – my bruised ego.

        I’ve also had two anti-burst balls develop leaks. A slow deflation as opposed to a sudden drop is very much preferable.

Dusan says January 7, 2016

Gary, please recomend us exercise ball. Thanks for the link!

    Stephen Werner says January 8, 2016

    Like Gary, I’ve used a ball as a chair for some time. I use an 85 cm for this (larger than what would be used (based on height) for workingout. My most recent one I got through Amazon (very hard to find an 85 cm at stores):

    $19 is a rather good price, too.

      Stephen Werner says January 8, 2016

      Oh, and you definitely want an anti-burst one. I once had one that wasn’t…and it did. Very loud boom, and I dropped straight to the floor. The noise brought people running to my office in time to see me having to pick my embarrassed _ss up off the floor.

        Dusan says January 11, 2016

        is this one on the link you provided, the anti-burst ball?
        Thank you very much!

Dusan says January 11, 2016

is this one on the link you provided, the anti-burst ball?
Thank you very much!

    Stephen Werner says January 12, 2016


Z.A. says February 12, 2016

Hey P.D., another great resource I use is F.lux . It synchronizes with your location in relation to Sun position and alters the blue to red lighting and brightness of your screen. It’s a great tool, been using it for a while now .

    P. D. Mangan says February 12, 2016

    Thanks, Z.A., I’ve mentioned that before here, and I use it myself. I noticed a difference in my sleep right away after installing it. Also, there Twilight for Android.

How to Get the Right Dose of Exercise - Rogue Health and Fitness says August 2, 2016

[…] can be healthful even for someone who’s already in good shape/health, because it means that the person is not sedentary, and being sedentary causes insulin resistance and an increased risk of death, even if exercise is […]

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