7 Realistic Ways to Be Less Sedentary at Work

by | Jul 7, 2014

Photo by bark

I’ve always considered myself an active person. I joined my first gym at age twelve (my mom lied and told them I was fourteen to get around the age limit––a terrible idea, but that’s another story), and spent my high school years as a ballerina dancing nearly 20 hours per week. In college I stopped dancing but focused more on the gym, then dabbled in tennis, then long-distance running in graduate school.

As an adult I settled into a comfortable routine of working at my desk or lab bench, then spending at least an hour at the gym 5-6 days per week. Most of us would not consider this a sedentary lifestyle, and indeed it is far more active than most Americans. Unfortunately, spending long stretches of time sitting throughout the day is considered sedentary and has been shown to increase metabolic risk and mortality, even in normal weight and otherwise active people. And that meant me. Scary, right?

Because extended bouts of computer time and frequent meetings are so common, it benefits all of us to find ways to limit or break up our sitting time. Here are some practical tips to reduce our desk time and improve quality of life at the office.

7 Realistic Ways to Be Less Sedentary at Work

1. Limit email

How much time do you spend on email each day? Two hours? Four hours? It’s disgusting isn’t it? Believe it or not there are ways to limit this life-sucking activity to just a fraction of the time you spend now. My first big eye-opener about email came when I read Tim Ferriss’ first book, The 4-Hour Work Week. Most of us use email as a default crutch that we return to every few minutes like trained monkeys. We intuitively understand that this is inefficient, yet we do it anyway. Stop multitasking, limit email to certain times a day and watch your discretionary time soar. Then use it to get out of your desk and move around a little more.

2. Walking meetings

Meetings are the other huge time sink in the workplace, and they have a tendency to fill every second you aren’t wasting on email. Whenever possible, suggest walking meetings instead of conference room meetings. Walking meetings are ideal for small groups of 2-3 people, and can have a tremendous impact on the amount of time you spend active during the day, and even improve the efficiency of your discussion. Win-win.

3. Eat lunch away from your desk

I know, I know. You’re busy. There’s lots to do. Why not get a little extra work done during your lunch hour and go home a few minutes earlier? Don’t kid yourself, working through lunch does not make you more productive. Not only does your brain need rest to perform optimally, but making an effort to leave your desk and have a proper lunch will both get you moving and help encourage mindful eating. If you are serious about increasing productivity, focus more on point #1.

4. Standing desk

Standing and treadmill desks have become far more popular and are no longer the impractical, esoteric recommendation they used to be. But even if you’re stuck with a regular sit-down desk, chances are you have a laptop you can use to migrate to the counter every once in awhile. Finding a table top that’s the right height can be a little tricky, but if you can pull it off then breaking up your day between sitting and standing can easily become a reality.

5. Drink more water

“Drink more water” is a common health goal and New Year’s resolution. Kill two birds with one stone by filling up your water glass more often at the office. Bonus: add even more activity with the extra bathroom trips. Boo-yah!

6. Take the stairs

It sounds cliche, but taking the stairs really is a fantastic way to be more active and most of us still don’t do it. If you need extra motivation, it also does amazing things for your legs and backside. (Boys, us ladies appreciate a good rear as much as you do.)

7. Desk pedal

If there really is no way around being chained to your desk for most of the day, consider investing in an under-desk foot pedal. They aren’t as sexy as standing desks, but they can get your legs moving and are fairly discreet. I’ve seen them on Amazon for as low as $20.

How do you avoid being sedentary at work?

Originally published August 26, 2013.

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23 Responses to “7 Realistic Ways to Be Less Sedentary at Work”

  1. Brandon says:

    What’s the proper height for a standing desk? From a couple diagrams I’ve seen online it looks like arms bent at 90 degrees to the keyboard and monitor at eye level? Is it bad if both the keyboard and monitor are below that, so you’re looking down at an upward tilting monitor? Would that scenario still be better than sitting? My desk is fairly stationary.

  2. Mary says:

    I take a 15 minute walking break during the morning and in the afternoon. (We are encouraged to do so by management.) I also make sure to walk a good bit on my lunch break. I have to listen to a lot of conference calls/webinars, but I am rarely the one talking. During these calls, I shut my door and do wall sits, planks, pushups, squats, etc while listening. Every little bit helps, right?

  3. Paula says:

    I don’t have a waste paper basket under my desk. Every time I need to throw something away, I get up and use my colleague’s waste paper basket about three steps away.
    Also, I don’t put a pitcher with water on my desk, but get up and refill my water glass straight from the faucet in the tea kitchen.
    I am lucky to share a printer with colleagues, which is down the hall – another reason to get up and move. :-)
    My Fitbit tells me that the only time I sit for more than 10 minutes is in meetings (and similar situations) where it is just not appropriate to get up and move around.

  4. Lain says:

    I tried an underdesk pedaler and my knees constantly hit my desk. It was a waste. If you have a computer keyboard tray, I would save your money.

  5. RJK says:

    Great article. This is the 3rd one this week on the SAME topic. Sitting really is becoming the new smoking.I thought I was doing pretty good, working out 5-6 days a week. However, now I get up every 30 mins, do a little walk and stretch. Going to try to push for a standing desk. Here’s to hoping.

  6. Dee says:

    I try to be less sedentary by consistently:- how i make office work more active

    1. Always take the stairs instead of elevator
    2. Walk around office and hold ‘small’ talk* still should do more of this
    3. Lunch time gym break :) my favorite
    4. During inactive sitting hours drinking and working – lots of water
    5. Getting up from chair, Standing in meetings to share my points or presentation instead of sitting with the remote pointer at the screen (animation)

  7. Jyoti says:

    Or if you have kids then run around them and with them everyday all day everywhere and look forward to the work week desk reprieve while they are making others run around them.

  8. Brittany says:

    Great article! As an artist, I don’t work in an office environment, but this has got me thinking about buying an easel so I can work on my paintings whilst standing (at the moment I sit at a large table to do my watercolour portraits)

  9. Kathy says:

    I work in a large complex. I always eat lunch at my desk and use my lunch break to walk for 30 minutes through the building.

    I also take “stairs breaks” where I go up and down nine floors a couple times a day.

  10. Every hour, I make it a point to get up and walk around my building. I then make other trips for water, to use the restroom, and so on.

  11. CreLa says:

    How about building in activity just getting to work? If you use public transportation, try to stand rather than sit during the commute (given no other injuries, etc. which would make it more difficult). For me, 30 min each way standing rather than sitting makes a big difference even if it means balancing my kindle and juggling my bag more awkwardly.
    Also…biking to work!

  12. Joy says:

    I’m definitely guilty of being sedentary during the work day and while I schedule lunch with friends so my work-from-home self won’t get too bored, I think having walking meetings/dates with work collaborators and friends is a brilliant idea. We can combine food truck tastings and walking. :)

  13. Carol says:

    Walking meetings – great idea! I find that getting up from my desk when I have a phone call also does the trick. It’s amazing how much that activity can add up.

  14. Darya, thanks a lot for these tips!!! I hope they will help me burn more calories in the end of the day.

  15. Coop says:

    My trick is to work for a very focused 50 minutes, then take a 10 min break. Since I work from home I have a wide variety of exercise options. For my first 10 min break I may do some foam rolling. For my second 10 min break I may do some crunches or push ups.

    I find the balance of work and exercise makes for a healthy and productive day.

  16. ladyfleur says:

    I’m with CreLa on this one. Biking or taking transit and walking to work is the easiest way to get daily exercise. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for more people than you’d think, especially if you are looking for 30 minutes of exercise each way. Thirty minutes is 1.5 miles on foot or 5 miles by bike at an easy, no sweat pace.

  17. julie says:

    I bike (occasionally walk) the 2.5 miles to the shuttle that takes me to work. While I agree that it’s much better than driving, and keeps me from being completely sedentary, it really is minimal exercise, and I still need to walk around the building a bunch, often a walk during lunch, and some gym time a few days a week, to be even considered moderately active.

    I feel crappy if I sit too much.

  18. maria says:

    Hey Darya great Post! I have a question regarding strength trainings after reading foodist. I am about to go back to the gym after a long hiatus( fractured leg from climbing) and this time I don’t want it to be all about cardio. However starting strenght training has been my greatest inertia. I do not know where to begin. Should I only focus on one muscle group or more? I want to take small steps but I do not know the difference between effective and ineffective strength training.I cannot afford the personal trainers in my gym or have a friend to show me the ropes. Do you have any suggestion or a decent website that I can use? Thanks a bunch!

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi Maria,

      That’s a great question and I think you have a good attitude going in. It is tough if you don’t know your way around the gym. It may be worth springing for just one or two sessions with a trainer. Personally I focus on two major muscle groups each session, and try to get through the entire body 1-2x per week. What you do will depend on what equipment you have access to. Here’s what I have been doing the past several years: http://summertomato.com/my-weekly-workout/

      If you’re still stuck, I recommend searching through a few fitness blogs until you find someone with a method that resonates with you. Good luck!

  19. Mark says:

    Nice article. What I do is I have a 30 minute timer. I read in Short Guide to a Long Life that sitting sedentary daily is the equivalent of smoking a pack a day or something. And since I have an office job at a computer I wanted to get up and move. So now I get up every 30 minutes for 5 minutes and either take mail downstairs, ask a co-worker something (instead of calling them) in person, get a drink of water, or even just take a lap around the office. It’s helped a lot and I feel a lot better doing it. However, there are some jobs or certain times when you need to get into ‘flow’ for four hours and what not which is unavoidable. But for now, this is working well!

  20. maria says:

    Thanks Darya!

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