Self Care

How to Keep Your Office Job from Killing You

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Kate Harveston

We all must work for the things we need and want to stay happy and healthy. Most of us, anyway. And for many employees, holding down a job means making your living in an office setting.

Offices can be a gift and a curse. They’re usually climate-controlled and reasonably safe, and they have many of the comforts of home. But offices also carry some mental and physical health implications that range from mild nuisances to genuinely worrying. Here’s a look at how you can keep your office job from taking draining the life out of you.

1. Stand up More Often

Everybody’s familiar with back pain of one kind or another. Except, maybe, for whoever can afford to spend $1,500 on an office chair. Those people’s lumbar spines must be as fresh as a newborn’s.

According to every reputable source of medical knowledge, sitting for extended periods doesn’t just cause temporary back pain — it takes years off our potential lifespans. It also links with a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, musculoskeletal issues and even cancer.

For the 86% of American employees who sit for a living, this is a problem. And it means you need to be extremely deliberate about standing up, stretching and moving around for a few minutes every hour.

2. Sit Like an Adult

Slouching is for children. In addition to the health risks mentioned above, slouching also causes bursitis and arthritis. Unfortunately, almost none of us knows how, or bothers, to sit in an ergonomically correct way. Here are some pointers:

  • Don’t sit all the way back in your chair — sit at the edge of it.
  • After taking your position on the edge, sit up as straight as you can. Exaggerate your back’s curve at first, and then relax into a tall, straight position. Hold yourself there.
  • Adjust the height of your chair until your knees are below your hips. NASA calls this the “neutral body posture” because astronauts’ bodies assume this position in zero gravity.

You can skip the desk treadmill. You’re likelier to hurt yourself with it than to extend your life.

Keeping each of the muscle groups engaged to maintain the proper sitting position takes effort, but it only gets easier. And it’s worth it, too — around 20% of those who experience acute, temporary back pain suffer from chronic back pain later in life.

3. Commute Less If You Can

Commuting long distances is a necessary evil for many people in the workforce. Unfortunately, those long hours at the wheel may be taking a hidden toll on your physical and mental well-being.

Research conducted by the Cooper Institute in Dallas and the Saint Louis University School of Medicine found commuting 10 miles or more by car can raise a person’s risk of developing high blood sugar and may cause their cholesterol to spike.

And while public transportation is a worthy investment and a godsend for many, it’s not perfect either. A report from the UK found those who commute by bus for 30 minutes or more daily have lower life satisfaction than commuters of other types.

What does this mean for you? It may mean finding a job closer to your home or a home closer to your job — if you can. If you can’t, bring your employer a detailed proposal about what it would take for you to work from home. The internet has made it possible to perform a wide range of office jobs remotely part-time or even full-time.

4. Buy Takeout Food Less Often

Those who desk-dive for a living don’t always keep up decent dietary habits. It’s easy to reach for high-calorie, low-effort, pre-packaged foods. Or maybe co-workers pressure you.

Research shows that indulging in even one fast-food meal can have a lasting negative effect on your health by narrowing your arteries and raising your blood pressure. It also compromises your metabolism by making it harder for your body to convert resources into energy.

Then there are digestive issues and the chances of obesity, heart disease, stroke and other conditions to worry about. Research also shows asthma sufferers are more likely to experience an attack following a high-fat fast food meal.

Everybody’s body and schedule are different. But if you wake up hungry, don’t skip breakfast. And make it something healthy if you can, like chia seed oatmeal, homemade protein bars or — if no baby boomers are around to see — avocado toast.

After that, eat small amounts periodically throughout the day to keep your body fueled. A handful of nuts is often all it takes to satisfy you. Stay away from highly processed foods and those that are high in saturated fats, trans fats and sugar.

Dog lying on bed

5. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

Adults are sleeping more than one hour less, on average, than they did in 1942. In 2016, the U.S. CDC found one-third of all American adults regularly get less than seven hours of sleep. Individual mileage varies, but seven hours is a good target for most people.

Getting poor-quality, or not enough, sleep over a long period can result in:

  • A higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Potentially clinical levels of anxiety
  • Feelings of loneliness, despair and social isolation
  • Poorer retention of learned material and compromised memory-forming

Studies even demonstrate sleep-deprived individuals experience “higher rates of pain, work interference and functional limitation.”

We don’t live in a world where we can sleep whenever we want to and get up whenever we fancy. And that means improving your sleep hygiene is going to take some effort. Rework when you go to sleep at night to make it likelier that you hit your seven hours. You can also consider:

  • Increasing your exposure to bright, ideally natural, light during the day
  • Reducing blue light exposure in the evening
  • Reducing your consumption of caffeine and alcohol or cutting them out of your diet altogether
  • Skipping daytime naps
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Saying “no” to late-night snacks

You might not like some of these changes at first — especially losing the midnight half-pint of Ben & Jerry’s — but you’ll soon fall into a new rhythm. And your health will thank you for it.

Poor sleep isn’t exclusive to office workers, of course. But these are some of the likeliest employees to take their workloads home with them at night and over the weekends, which only adds further distraction, stress and sleep disruptions. Make sure you have firm boundaries and that your boss respects them.

Improve Your Health at Work, Starting Today

With any luck, we’ve convinced you that most of the changes worth making in the name of health aren’t that crazy or burdensome. We don’t always choose where we work or even like our jobs, but we can lessen some of the health impacts that we all experience, to one degree or another, thanks to the daily grind.

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