Regular Movement Critical to Your Health When You Have a Desk Job

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I’ve been in the middle of an editing project, which means I’ve been sitting in front of my computer quite a bit this past month. There’s been no time to get to the gym at this point since I’m on a tight timeline. And it turns out that’s not good.

    Physiologists have found that sitting stops the circulation of lipase, which is a fat-absorbing enzyme. In a 2008 story on, these researchers found that “standing up engages muscles and promotes the distribution of lipase, which prompts the body to process fat and cholesterol, independent of the amount of time spent exercising. They also found that standing up uses blood glucose and may discourage the development of diabetes.”

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    More recently, The New York Times ran a story by Jame Vlahos entitled, “Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?”. The story looked at the work of Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, who is a key figure in the emerging field of inactivity studies. His studies actually don’t rely on the participants’ self-reports; instead, he assesses people through technology that measures calorie-burning rates and other bodily functions. In a 1999 study, Dr. Levine and his colleagues asked participants to not exercise but add 1,000 calories per day to their diet. Researchers wanted to see if they could determine why some would gain weight while others would not.  After starting to analyze these participants with motion-tracking underwear, researchers determined what was causing this disparity. “The people who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more,” Dr. Jensen told the New York Times. They would take the stairs, fidget, and other types of activity. (I can totally see this! In a previous job, our business officer, who had a job that required a lot of sitting, would literally jog down the hallway to the restroom and fidget in her office. And she remains to this day very lithe!)

    Vlahos reported that a growing body of inactivity research has found that while sitting, your muscle’' electrical activity and calorie-burning rate drops. In addition, insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, which leads to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Sitting also causes lipids and triglycerides to decrease, which leads to a decline in HDL (good) cholesterol. In one of Hamilton’s studies, 14 young, fit and thin volunteers agreed to be studied while they sat. Hamilton found that the participants showed a physical difference after only 24 hours of sitting.

    So what can you do? An obvious answer would be to get thee to the gym, but it’s not that clear cut. “Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterward or hit the gym. It is bad whether you are morbidly obese or marathon-runner thin,” Vlahos wrote.

    Some researchers suggest getting into the habit of standing while working. Dr. Marc Hamilton, a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, told, "If you can perform a behavior while sitting or standing, I would choose standing. You can have just as much fun watching your kids play if you're standing by the fence, next to a friend who pulls out that aluminum lawn chair and is sitting there.” In fact, NPR’s Fresh Air staff started a forum after reading The New York Times story that asked listeners whether they have had come up with a way to create a desk that would allow the worker to stand.

  • Dr. Levine has developed another concept, called NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).  In the NEAT framework, minor movements – such as standing up to stretch or leaning over to tie a show -- can add up to make a big difference in your overall health.

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    So the moral of this story is if you work at a desk for long periods of time (like I do), figure out ways to regularly incorporate movement into your life. Your health will thank you!

Published On: May 17, 2011