The banal perils of our sedentary work habits and lifestyles are well documented. Muscular diseases such as carpal tunnel syndrome linked to keyboard usage skyrocketed beginning in the 1980s. Back and neck problems associated with sitting have also been on the rise. Workers who spend all day at a desk or in the car have been show by medical studies to be at higher risk for heart disease, obesity, certain types of cancers, diabetes, even depression. Sitting has been called, perhaps hyperbolically, “the new smoking”, by Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative.
Sitting for an extended period is also negatively impacting our work performance. The British Medical Journal has concluded that prolonged time spent off our feet contributes to fatigue. This can be detrimental to productivity for workers in the knowledge economy and downright dangerous for those of us who drive or operate machinery. In a national survey conducted by the National Safety Council, among 2000 working adults, 76% of respondents reported feeling tired at work, 44% had trouble focusing, and 16% admitted to falling asleep unintentionally while driving!
There are countless remedies to the issues of workplace fatigue and health problems associated with prolonged seat exposure. Potential fixes to these common problems range from limiting screen time, changing our diets, transitioning to a standing desk, coordinating sleep schedules to more closely reflect our circadian rhythms, something called a Pomodoro Timer? Unfortunately, most of us just crack our knuckles and reach for that second cup of coffee when we feel stiff or lethargic.
But, there is one very simple way to combat these potential perils without making any sacrifices, spending any money, or going on some weird energy diet: walking.
A short walk gives the brain a chance to rest. As we think about the scenery or our destination our brains get a chance to decompress. We get a break from whatever task we were working on. Breaking up thinking about a topic can often lead to a fresh perspective on an issue. One we could miss if we refuse to come up for air. Research conducted at the University of Illinois has shown that even light aerobic exercise increases the number of blood vessels servicing the brain. This increase contributes to the speed of brain activity and facilitates problem solving. Walking has been shown to improve mood. It can give us a restored sense of balance when we are feeling frustrated or angry. Albert Einstein famously made a ritual of taking a brief walk around the neighborhood every afternoon. He reported having many of his ideas on these strolls.
In addition to the psychological benefits of walking, there are numerous physiological benefits. Walking increases heart rate, improves circulation, it facilitates deeper breathing, and stimulates muscle activity. Even a brief walk can positively impact cardiovascular health, balance, bone strength, and muscle health. Walking outside gives our body a chance to capture much needed vitamin D from sunlight (well, at least a few months a year in upstate NY). Being away from our work station also gives our eyes a chance to readjust, reducing strain that comes from reading small print or looking at screens. All this can be accomplished with a five or ten-minute walk down the block, or even around the office.
Sitting down all day reading off a screen and making repetitive hand motions is not great for our bodies or our minds. And remedies such as drinking caffeine, eating sugary snacks, or browsing social media can actually be making the problem worse. Taking a short break to get up and walk around for a few minutes provides numerous benefits both for our physical well-being and for our ability to do our jobs well.