We’ve heard it all before: desk work is wrecking havoc on our health.
But experts warn that, while 86 percent of Americans work at a desk, few of us know how to offset the damage.
If you spend at least six hours a day at a desk, your heart attack risk is double what it should be. Computers also increase your risk of vision loss by 40 percent, increase insulin resistance, and affect our mental health.
This culture of working has given rise to the ‘weekend warrior’ who packs a week’s worth of exercise into two days, and after-hours yoga or meditation.
However, research shows that may only have a superficial impact on boosting your health.
We spoke to a cardiologist, a personal trainer, and an optometrist about the dangers of desk work, and some concrete tips that really could balance out the downsides.
Data show around 86 percent of Americans work at desks, but few of us know what it is doing to our bodies
HEART HEALTH: EVEN FOUR WORKOUTS A WEEK IS NOT ENOUGH IF YOU DON’T HAVE STANDING BREAKS
What’s the damage?
‘The major things from a point of view of your heart is if you’re sitting your heart rate will lower, and this affects everything,’ Dr Allan Stewart, MD, Director of Aortic Surgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Daily Mail Online.
He runs through the laundry list of issues:
1) You tend to eat less healthy foods
‘If you don’t have the ability to get up, you will just make do with the food near you or that can be delivered to you, which tends to be less nutritious,’ Dr Stewart explains.
‘Also if you’re going to be sat all day, you’re going to look for things that will give you a sugar rush for energy.’
2) You build up fat on your heart
‘Muscles burn less fat because you’re less active. Because you have an increase in circulation of fatty acids and cholesterol to the heart, this increases your risk of a heart attack,’ Dr Stewart says.
‘Even if you go to the gym four times a week you won’t completely offset the damage of sitting for at least six hours a day. You will still have a higher risk of heart attack.’
A toll on the heart: A Mount Sinai cardiologist breaks down how sitting impacts the heart
3) You build up dangerous insulin resistance
‘We have also seen that people who sit for six hours a day are less sensitive to insulin,’ says Dr Stewart.
Insulin resistance is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, which is triggered by sedentary behavior and obesity – but Dr Stewart warns even seemingly healthy desk workers have a high risk.
4) You gain a ‘spare tire’ around your middle
‘If you are not moving your muscles, you’re not processing glucose enough, meaning you’ll have more fat around your ‘spare tire’ (i.e. belly and love handles),’ Dr Stewart warns.
5) Increased close on the lungs
What can you do?
Unfortunately for weekend warriors, Dr Stewart claims that most of the damage to your heart and muscles will already be done.
Without some breaks during the day, you still carry the same risk, he says.
Here are his tips to offset your risk:
1) Stand whenever possible
Dr Stewart recommends getting up at every opportunity to keep your heart rate up – whether it’s to take a phone call, to have a conversation, or to grab a glass of water.
2) Take a standing break every hour
If you maintain regular bouts of movement, Dr Stewart says, you will prevent your heart rate from grinding down to a sluggish rate.
3) Walk and talk meetings
‘If you have a meeting that doesn’t require sitting at a computer to look at a screen, why don’t you go for a walk if the conditions are nice,’ he suggests.
4) Turn your desk into a workout if you’re at home
‘Get an exercise ball and put it on an uneven surface so your core is engaged,’ Dr Stewart recommends.
‘Or put your laptop on a treadmill so you can walk while you work.’
4) …And keep up with your normal workouts
‘You need to get 30 to 45 minutes of exercise at least four days a week,’ he says.
POSTURE AND TONING: WHY SITTING FOR HOURS CAN ATROPHY YOUR MUSCLES
What’s the damage?
‘Believe it or not the less we sit, the better for our body’s natural state,’ Moe Widdi, a ‘master trainer’ at New York Health & Racquet Club, told Daily Mail Online.
‘We are a creation of labor. Sitting down for a majority of the day, can increase our body’s risk for injury.’
He explains that we will lose strength in key areas like our core and our glutes, forcing more pressure on our bones.
‘All parts of the body work together, so if something is off it throws everything else off. Muscles begin to fire up differently and joints begin to change jobs to help compensate,’ Widdi explains.
‘In addition, posture is extremely vital to a person’s life. It helps exude confidence, lessens the chance of injury, and can help you avoid asthma.
‘When you develop poor posture, the shoulders close off towards the front of your body causing the back to round, restricting the lungs from getting efficient oxygen.’
Do you have ‘desk butt’: Trainers warn sitting all day atrophies your muscles, making your bottom flat
What can you do?
To avoid injuries and poor posture, it’s important to strengthen your posterior and anterior muscles, muscles that control the back and front of your body.
Widdi recommends these exercises four times a week to offset the damage:
1) WALL SLIDES
- Lay against a flat wall or mirror
- Flatten your back against it by contracting your core and tilting your pelvis to the back
- Put your arms and hands against the wall making a foot ball field goal
- Tuck in your chin by trying to put the back of your head against the wall, and press against the mirror as you are sliding your hands up and down. By doing so you’re forcing the muscles we need in the back and neck to isolate and activate by keeping the back flat as you wall slide
- PRO TIP: if you can keep good form use a light bar or light pole
2) SUPINATED REVERSE FLYS
- Keeping the same form for your back as the Wall Slides, grab a Thera band with your hands supinated (palms facing up) to externally rotate your shoulders which allows you to contract your back muscles more when you do a reverse fly.
- Keep hands straight out in front of you, elbows locked in
- Then touch the wall with each rep if your range of motion permits
PROTECT YOUR EYES: HOW SCREENS AFFECT YOUR VISION
What’s the damage?
Screens are not going to make you go blind, assures Dr Randy McLoughlin,an optometrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
However, he says the jury is still out on how damaging screens’ UV rays can be to our eyes, and sitting for hours on end staring at one thing close up can put an increasing amount of strain on our retinas.
‘The whole world is up close when you have a much higher neural demand from screens all day long,’ he told Daily Mail Online.
‘It means you’re going to notice and feel that strain more.’
He added that, while research is still ongoing in this field, ultra-violet rays are known to be unhelpful, if not directly damaging, for our eye health.
Straining your eyes: Ultra-violet rays and focusing on one thing for hours creates eye strain
What can you do?
1) Take vision breaks
‘We recommend that people take visual breaks every 20 to 30 minutes,’ Dr McLoughlin explains.
‘Look away and relax your eyes for at least 30 seconds. You don’t need to break your train of thought, just break your screen time for a moment.’
2) Use over-the-counter eye drops
‘Liquid eye drops from the pharmacy work well, and that can relieve dryness or eye strain,’ he says.
3) Get your eyes checked every two years
For people who do not have vision issues or concerns to check out, you should be aiming for an optometrist check-up every other year.
‘A lot of people may assume that their eyes are fine, and when they get round to getting checked out in their 40s they’re embarrassed saying “I haven’t been since high school!”
‘Don’t worry – we’re not going to shame you for not coming! But we do recommend getting checked out every two years, just to make sure everything is fine.’