Dealing With Workplace Inactivity

by Sarah Gold

Earlier this summer, the NY Times published a story pointing to a new culprit in obesity: workplace inactivity. The article discussed a research study published in the journal PloS One, which looked at workplace activity patterns over the last 50 years. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that jobs requiring moderate physical activity have dropped from 50% in 1960 to 20% today. The study went on to state that the average decline in calories burned during the day is around 100 calories, which the authors say accounts for a significant portion of Americans’ weight gain. This summer, I find myself amongst the many Americans sitting at a desk for eight to ten hours per day. For the first time in my life, I also drive to work (since college I have I have always lived in a large city with public transportation). I have to make a conscious effort to stand up and walk around every so often; it’s easy to see how quickly so many people become sedentary.

Physical inactivity is no doubt part of the reason America is facing an obesity epidemic and it is likely that workplace inactivity plays some role in this equation. Many Americans drive to work, sit at a desk all day and then drive home, where they spend the rest of the night sitting on the couch. This is not new news and desk jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. What do we do?

Over the last several years, many large corporations have taken steps to improve employee health and wellness. Offices around the country now have on-location employee fitness centers; other companies provide gym discounts or, if you’re really lucky, free memberships to local gyms. Biggest Loser competitions have become popular among many office employees and some organizations are hiring nutrition consultants to educate employees about healthier eating habits. There are even companies building standing desks and desks attached to treadmills, though some people are skeptical of the productivity and safety of these desks, myself included.

Although I am sitting behind a computer all summer, I am lucky to be interning for a company that prioritizes employee health and wellness and offers many programs that encourage both healthy eating and physical activity. Unfortunately, I quickly learnedthat I am in the minority group of employees who actually take advantage these programs. A small investigation around the office revealed that many employees aren’t aware of the wide variety of health and wellness programs available to them. In addition, employees feel that it was too difficult to fit physical activity into their jam-packed work day and they are too busy to worry about their diet.

These findings became the basis for one of my intern projects, an employee health and wellness campaign on diet and exercise. The focus of the campaign, which will launch later this month, is on the simple changes one can make during the workday to include more activity and to improve diet. For example, planning healthy snacks into a daily eating plan, going for a lunchtime walk, or taking the stairs are a few components of the program. The campaign will engage employees through a series of events, interactive food preparation and exercise demonstrations, the introduction of a weekly walking group, and written communication through the company intranet.

One of the most important things I learned during this process is that a company can offer many great programs, but if employees don’t know about them or don’t feel empowered to take advantage, the programs are useless. It also starts with company culture. If you see your boss or coworker taking a lunchtime walk, it’s more likely you will be motivated to do so.

We are always looking for the latest scapegoat for America’s weight problem. While office jobs certainly don’t help, there are adjustments we can make to our day to move more. If you find yourself sitting at a desk this summer, take the initiative to take a walk during lunch, park your car further away from the building, or even ride your bike to work if you can. Don’t forget to encourage your coworkers to join you. Every little bit counts!

Sarah Gold is about to enter her second year as a Nutrition Communication student also completing the Didactic Program in Dietetics so she can pursue a Dietetic Internship. A born New Yorker, but Cali girl at heart, you can find Sarah on the ski slopes, on a bike, training for a road race, or in the kitchen testing out new recipes.

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