Researchers prescribe easy office workouts

September 5, 2011

Labor Day is over, as are summer vacations for most people, so it’s time to head back to the daily grind. But work today doesn’t usually mean breaking a sweat. More and more of us are spending our 9 to 5 at a desk — and we’re less healthy as a result.

A study published in May by the online journal PLoS One estimates that Americans are burning more than 100 fewer calories per day in the workplace than they did just a few decades ago, when fewer jobs were confined to a desk.

“We’ve had massive changes in the [workplace] environment, and in this case, it’s a loss of physically active jobs,” said lead author Tim Church, an exercise researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.

Church and his colleagues found that the number of people in jobs requiring moderate physical activity decreased from 48 percent in 1960 to 20 percent in 2008. The researchers also found a match between the drop in calories burned and increase in average weight during the past five decades.

A few creative types have come up with ideas to increase workplace activity. For example, endocrinologist James Levine of the Mayo Clinic has promoted the tread mill desk, which lets you walk slowly as you work at an attached desktop; factory-made models cost $2,000 and up. There are under-desk step machines such as the $195 Gamercize PC-Sport; if you stop pedaling, your mouse or keyboard stop working. To add upper-body exercises, there’s the $599 GymyGym, an office chair equipped with built-in resistance bands.

But you don’t have to spend that much money to get a workout. Fitness experts are also promoting low-cost — if occasionally funny-looking — options for improving your fitness during office hours. Some of our Washington Post colleagues tried them out, as you can see on this page.

Toni Yancey, a researcher at the UCLA School of Public Health, has developed and written a book about a 10-minute exercise routine called “Instant Recess.” It includes both strength training and aerobic exercises that can be done within the boundaries of a cubicle — moves such as tricep kicks, knee lifts and hamstring curls.

“They’re simple movements that can be done by everyone, even people with extra weight and disabilities,” said Yancey, who added that the concept has been adopted by hundreds of offices, schools and other organizations.

Many of the moves involve the lower body, which has large muscle groups that can burn more calories than the upper body, Yancey said. Ideally, she said, people should do the exercises twice a day — once in the mid-morning and once in the afternoon — to break up long periods of sitting.

The program has an enthusiastic following among a group of employees at the Los Angeles County Health Department who have been doing it for more than five years. Some workers have commented that the routine wakes them up better than a cup of coffee, said Cynthia Harding, the department’s director of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health. Many workers are paying better attention to their health, she added.

A study published in 2008 by the journal Preventing Chronic Disease reported on a group of 271 participants at the Mexican Ministry of Health who did Yancey’s exercises for 10 minutes every workday. After a year, the group’s average waistline decreased by 1.6 centimeters (0.6 inches). Men, in particular, lowered their body mass index (BMI), while women showed a decrease in diastolic blood pressure.

Yancey and her fellow researchers at UCLA are now in the third year of a five-year, National Institutes of Health-funded study of program sites in Los Angeles County to compare those participating with those not. Data from a pilot version of the study presented at a National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute meeting in 2009 showed that participants maintained their BMI, while workers who didn’t participate had their BMI increase on average.

Alice Burron, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise, recommended a more intense alternative to Yancey’s routine: plyometric exercises. These are defined by fast, powerful movements and include side lunges and jump squats. According to Burron, plyometric exercises require lots of muscles, strength and calories.

“If you can, find a way to move both your upper and lower body,” Burron said. She recommended that workers lift weights with their arms (you don’t need dumbbells; a water bottle or stapler could be sufficient) as they perform lower-body movements. “When you add the arms, you increase the intensity.”

Over the course of 10 minutes, plyometric exercises might get workers sweaty, so Burron recommended lowering the overall intensity by mixing her exercises with the aerobics of Yancey’s routine.

Pick up a pedometer

Church, the author of of the PLoS study, said that office exercises aren’t the best way to improve workplace fitness. He recommended “a simpler solution”: Use a pedometer.

“You don’t appreciate how sedentary you are until you start using a step counter,” Church said. The device can shock people into changing their behavior, Church said, as well as help them achieve their fitness goals.

The average American walks a little more than 6,000 steps — about three miles — each day, yet much of the research in public health indicates that we should be walking roughly 10,000 steps, or about five miles. According to Catrine Tudor-Locke, a walking behavior researcher and co-author of the workplace study, walking fewer than 5,000 steps per day qualifies someone as sedentary; she suspects that many people who sit at their desk every day fall into this category.

Pushing for the recommended 10,000 steps might then seem like a lofty goal, but those who walk very little shouldn’t be discouraged. An increase of just 2,000 to 2,500 steps each day can lead to modest improvements in weight and blood pressure, Tudor-Locke said.

A review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2007 found that a pedometer, on average, increased the number of steps a person took each day by more than 2,100, and it increased overall physical activity by nearly 27 percent. Across studies, there were also statistically significant decreases in BMI and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Dena Bravata, lead author of the pedometer review, recommended logging each day’s step count, setting specific goals and implementing specific step-increasing strategies — such as as parking farther from the office, getting off the Metro a stop early or using the stairs more often. You can also arrange “walking meetings,” where the discussion takes place on a walk around the block, rather than around a table.

“A pedometer keeps track of your steps, but it’s just a tool,” Tudor-Locke said. “Without behavior modification, people would just put it in a drawer at the end of the day and not see any improvements.”

Whichever approach workers might take, researchers agreed, the most important step is getting up and moving.

“Something’s always better than nothing,” Church said.

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