So many people have jobs that require sitting behind a desk for much of the day, they've come to be known as "desk jockeys.''
And plenty of them keep on sitting after the workday is over, sitting at dinner, watching television and sitting at a computer. As you might guess, all this sitting is contributing to obesity.
So, wouldn't adding a regular exercise routine to a sedentary job keep a person lean and healthy? Research is suggesting that it's not that simple.
It looks like sitting for extended periods of time is so unhealthy, you can't make up for it just with regular exercise. This may be bad news for those trying to compensate for their inactive jobs, but it can help explain why so many desk jockeys have been frustrated by attempts to control their weight through exercise.
The good news is that understanding the cause of a problem is the first step in solving it.
Some of the findings of inactivity research suggest that during extended sitting:
• The muscles' electrical activity appears to drop severely, so few calories are burned (sitting burns only about a third of the calories used when walking). If you're sitting for most of your waking hours, that doesn't leave much time to burn enough calories during exercise to stay lean.
• The body's system of handling blood sugar becomes less effective, increasing the risk of diabetes.
• The body becomes less effective at breaking down "bad" fats, causing HDL cholesterol levels (the good cholesterol) to go down.
A study looking at why some people gain weight while others don't, despite eating the same number of calories, found that the "nongainers" were moving more without realizing it. The "gainers" sat two hours more per day than the "nongainers." Apparently, lean people move their bodies more, in general, than overweight people. That supports other studies showing that if two people are sitting, the leaner person is probably moving around more in her seat — fidgeting, talking with her hands and changing positions often. We might say both are doing the same thing — sitting — but, in reality, there are major differences in their energy burn.
Recently, I was at a Tampa Bay Rays game. Being a psychologist, I tend to watch the spectators more than the players. I was observing a man who spent the same amount of time as the rest of us engaged in the game, ate about the same amount, but in two other respects was quite different. He was constantly moving around, and he was leaner than most of the people at the game.
This man intrigued me, so I watched him during the entire game. Everything about him was active — how he sat in his seat, how often he got out of his seat, how he conversed with people (even strangers). This man laughed, sang, joked, yelled, danced — he didn't stop for one minute. By the way, he was entirely sober!
IN THE CUBICLE AND BEYOND
What can less-boisterous desk jockeys do to get their bodies in motion? Here are a few tips:
• Be consistent. If you're consistently sitting for many hours you must consistently move the rest of the time.
• Try to be more active when you have to sit (shift positions, stretch, move the legs).
• Take frequent active breaks (take the stairs up a floor to go to the bathroom, step outside for some fresh air, or walk around the building).
• If you have to meet with someone, why not do it while walking around rather than sitting in a conference room?
• Consider using a taller desk designed for working while standing.
• If you're talking on the phone but not using the computer, try standing during your conversations.
• Rather than calling or instant- messaging colleagues in your building, take a walk and visit them.
• Consider using a stability ball rather than a desk chair. Staying balanced on it will get you to use your muscles differently.
• Make sure to have an active lifestyle when not at work. Develop active hobbies and after-work activities.
• Do household chores yourself. Do you really have to have someone mow your lawn or clean your house?
Accept limitations, but don't give up. Let's be realistic. Maybe you can't look like a personal trainer whose job it is to be in the best of shape, but you can certainly aim to improve.
Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 240-9557.