What would our hunter/gathering ancestors think if they could see us now?
The office worker, in evolutionary terms, is something of a backward step. If we’re going to survive, as a species we’re going to have to get serious about our personal care and maintenance.
In our blog From Caveman To Couch Potato, we talk about our original design as homo-sapiens and how the human body was engineered for movement. In Walking – The best form of exercise we talked about the perils of musculo/skeletal inertia and the psychological issues that sedentary living can trigger.
With this article, 6 Secrets To Staying Fit In Your Office Job we’re going to bear down and see if we can’t fix some of the issues arising from the mass human practice of hunching over tables.
We love our jobs, we’re good at what we do and we want to stay healthy doing it!
The Office Environment
There have been some seismic shifts in recent years towards well-being in the workplace. Many office spaces have seen the installation of standing desks to discourage long periods of sitting and UV lamps to increase serotonin levels in a workforce deprived of the time to exercise essential healthy habits. For example, moving with a kinesthetic intention (more on that later), breathing fresh air and exposure to natural light.
According to the office for national statistics, workplace well-being has improved steadily year by year since 2010 and UK companies have seen a decline in absences due to stress or injuries. However, it’s been estimated that 31 million days are still being lost due to neck, shoulder, back and knee complaints and these absences are costing the employer up to £522 per complaint. The loss to the UK economy has surpassed £100 million and there’s been a noticeable rise in physical therapy appointments from people who work in the IT sector.
The good news is, we can reverse all this damage or if it’s not too late; prevent it. Get Fitter, Feel Better is our resounding motto here at OKOactive so let’s look at how we can continue being of value in the office while, at the same time, adding value to ourselves.
Let’s start with the grim truth because unless you moonlight as a yoga teacher, the chances are your office job takes it’s toll on your physical functionality. As a personal trainer, I continue to underestimate how much my body gets thrown about, demonstrating (and sometimes re-demonstrating) exercises. It’s only when I struggle to stand upright the next morning that I remember, I should’ve stretched when I got home last night!
Many people work in jobs that keep them on their feet. As well as the rosy-cheeked farmer, the list includes teacher’s, nurses, supermarket staff etc. Provided the worker is wearing shoes that allow the knees and hips to move without restriction and has received adequate personal safety training, occupations that keep us up and moving about are more in line with the way we are engineered to live.
Paperwork is a basic part of life and when you run your own business (or spend hours writing blogs) you also have to knuckle down to desk work. 6 hours in my spare room/office isn’t unusual, so I sit on a large Fit Ball. Although I’ve been sitting on it for years now, it’s so annoying that I’m forced to either wriggle about or get up every few minutes. One thing I can never do is to slouch, I’d be on the floor in under 2 seconds!
Stand up tall
Try to think of the skeleton as scaffolding, bones representing the metal poles. When the joints are stacked in alignment the structure is fully supported but as soon as a pole is moved, the structure becomes vulnerable. That’s when good strong muscles need to kick in.
To begin with, from a muscular perspective, sitting isn’t ideal. If you can imagine your original hunter/gatherer environment, there are no chairs or indeed smooth soft surfaces. We would’ve knelt, crouched, sat on the ground or spread out lengthways. One thing’s for sure, whatever resting place we chose would’ve been temporary as the next meal wasn’t going to catch itself!
Tilting the pelvis for a prolonged period will put a strain on the lower back muscles while at the same time shortening the hip flexors – these are the muscles deep within the lap at the top of the thighs. Usually when we’re engaged in office work we’re reaching forward, automatically disengaging the pectoral muscles of the chest and because we’re resting our forearms on the desk, the muscles between our shoulder blades might as well go to sleep, we can wake them up when it’s time to eat, drive or reach for something.
Perhaps the most common problem reported by office workers is back pain. Myriad issues are caused by spinal deterioration as muscles designed for support aren’t being put to use so literally, hang on or even pull the spine out of alignment. Gravitation and over or underuse of muscle is an issue further compounded by having been hinged at the hip for so long. Hips are the axis for most human movement so as Doug Dupont says in his article sitting at a desk is eating your muscles, when you start to [move] after sitting all day, the hips are locked. The movement has to come from somewhere so it comes from the spine, resulting in pain.
Most common complaints
According to a toolkit published by Public Health England (PHE), along with mental health issues such as anxiety and stress, most absences from the office are due to a neck, back or general muscle pain. Many industries are facing an aging workforce and, as Professor Dame Carol Black, special adviser to PHE reports, employers and employees are coming to recognize the importance of preventing [musculoskeletal] problems when they can and are conscious of the need to both accommodate and alleviate issues as and when they emerge.
We’ve identified some of the most common complaints facing the office worker so let’s look at some techniques we can employ to stay in good shape, even as we’re sitting at our desks.
KInesthesia refers to the sensation of movement, or for the purpose of this blog; muscle sense. Our skeletal muscles are activated by a reactionary force so if legs are allowed to dangle freely from a high chair or abdominal muscles rendered inactive by a prolonged forward tilt of the torso, there’s bound to be a referred demand from surrounding muscles; likewise if the elbows or forearms are either resting or even pressed onto a desk for a long time.
A short-term solution or even prevention of occurring musculoskeletal issues can be gained with either physiotherapy, massage therapy, chiropractic application or even medical intervention. In order to take command of your body though, and manage your physical health well into old age, exercise is key.
The living body is expertly engineered to renew and repair itself, we just need to help rather than hinder the process.
Some of the following exercises might seem like a lot of fuss, may even seem eccentric but you’re well worth the effort. Who know’s, you may even inspire others in your office to follow your example. A community of like-minded healthy people is infinitely more vibrant than a smokers cabin filled with grey- faced moaners!
6 Exercises To Condition Your Body For A Day In The Office
Your 1st tip comes in the form of a question:
Must you take the car today? Really? Can’t walk to the office and bus back? I only ask because, unless you’ve already walked the dog the chances are you’ve been curled up for hours breathing recycled air (unless you sleep with the window open) so your body, though rested is at it’s lowest ebb. As you start to move, synovial fluid is released into your ball and socket joints to lubricate and loosen them up, at the same time muscle fibers increase and decrease in length, becoming more elastic and increasing the demand for oxygen-enriched blood from your heart. This demand forces us to takes larger gulps of oxygen until eventually, we arrive at the office agile, rosy-cheeked and in much higher spirits than gridlocked traffic can evoke.
Set a timer for 30 seconds…
Reach – Rag Doll
Exercise 1. If you must take the car to work then take 3 minutes for yourself and stretch – preferably by an open window – by reaching for the ceiling (really try to touch it, tip toes and all) then fold in half by softening your knees and plunging your head to your feet. Allow your head and arms to swing heavily for 2 or 3 seconds before repeating the movement.
Exercise 2. When it’s done correctly, this exercise will also stretch your upper back, neck and pectoral (chest) muscles. First engage your core muscles by standing with your feet and knees pressed together then bend your knees to about 120° (so, not as low as a squat) With your chest facing the mirror or wall (anything but the floor!), take your right shoulder in your right hand, your left shoulder in your left hand and draw a wide forward circle with each elbow, left, right, left, right etc. Try to do it at an average pace of both shoulders per second.
Exercise 3. I’ve named this one so because it’s a good one for you to do in your chair later on and no one will laugh at you – promise! Stay in exactly the same position you took in Exercise 2. With your hands still on your shoulders, imagine you are trying to draw a heavy line up and down the wall behind you. Feel your shoulder blades spread like wings as you draw your elbows up, then feel your neck elongate as you draw your elbows into the small of your back. Inhale deeply (into your diaphragm) on the way up and empty your lungs on the way down.
Exercise 4. Lie face down on a carpet or padded surface with your arms spread out in a T shape (to your legs), your shoulders and the palms of your hands against the floor, your head resting on your chin. Without moving any other limbs, raise the heel of your right foot and aim it with a sweep of the leg to your left hand. To do this effectively, you’ll need to raise your right hip off the ground slightly, rotating your torso as you do so. Repeat with your left foot and try to achieve a fluid motion – keeping both shoulders and palms on the floor and your chin in place. Mammary alert! If performing this movement on your front is an issue for you, ladies (I’m dying of jealousy here…), you can enjoy the benefits by doing the same thing but on your back. Instead of your feet, aim your knees towards your upward facing palms.
Okay, reading that back it sounds complicated, but I assure you, if you can figure out Exercise 4, your body will thank you for it. Also, I’m quite approachable, if you were to email me for a demonstration, I’d quite happily get my phone out and film one for you – it would be my pleasure actually!
Exercise 5. If you do this one slowly, it can be a real abdominal burner, done fast with a rhythmic breathing technique it’ll liven up your whole body and raise your pulse too, so gage this one and pace yourself according to your biological mood.
Lying on your back, start by reaching your arms overhead and stretching your legs to the tips of your toes, then draw your knees up to your chest at the same time as you tuck your chin and draw your elbows to your knees. Repeat this movement at a steady pace until your timer goes off. If you want to give your abs a workout at the same time then before you begin crunching, draw your navel back towards your spine and keep your focus there. Your abs will be burning in no time!
Exercise 6. Pardon the irony but this most basic of yoga moves is really the Daddy! Not only will it decompress your spine that may have been twisted throughout the night, it will also allow a safe stretch for your back, your glutes and help the tendons of your quadriceps muscles to relax and release any tightness around the knees. The morning after an intense workout, it can take up to a minute for my forehead to reach the floor as my posterior muscles slowly relax!
Start in a comfortable kneeling position, preferably with knees together as this will stretch your hips as well, and be sitting on your heels. Simply fold forward, leaving your hands beside your feet so that the palms are facing up. Allow gravity to pull you into the floor while maintaining a calm, steady breath.
Have a lovely day!
The OKOactive Team
Further reading: 5 Exercises you can do in the office – and no one will laugh at you!