It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how calorie-burning works. When you move you’re using fuel (a.k.a. calories). And when you’re sitting at your computer, you’re not. But new research has revealed alarming evidence that countless hours spent slumped in your office desk chair (albeit ergonomically correct) can have profound physiological effects on your body, wreaking havoc far beyond the simple calories-in, calories-out equation.
“Your body isn’t built to sit,” says James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a leading advocate of the treadmill desk. “When you sit for a long time, the receptors on the muscles in your body that are inactive—lower back, buttocks, and legs, torso, abdominals, shoulders, and arms—start to change and become more resistant to insulin, causing blood sugar and triglyceride levels to rise.” It also causes your metabolism to plummet, which inevitably leads to weight gain. Studies have linked prolonged sitting with health issues down the line too, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, back pain, and depression. “It causes not only the machinery of your muscles to stop working the way they’re designed to but also, essentially, a systemwide failure,” he says. “If you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve been sitting for too long.”
And if you think that hitting the gym a few times a week can undo the damage, you may want to, well, sit down for this. “Exercise has clear health benefits, but working out for an hour a few days a week isn’t going to offset the harm that being at your desk all day has on your body,” says Levine, who suggests setting an alarm every 15 minutes as a reminder to stand and walk to a co-worker’s office instead of e-mailing. Aside from sitting, when you dissect the microcosm that is the office, you’re already well aware of the barrage of other diet saboteurs, like the colleague with the bottomless candy bowl.
“If you’ve been sitting for an hour, you’ve been sitting for too long,” warns endocrinologist James Levine.
“Even things that are meant to be positive socially can sabotage good intentions,” says Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of Thinfluence: The Powerful and Surprising Effect Friends, Family, Work, and Environment Have on Weight,which looks at how, when it comes to winning the war against excess weight, there are critical factors we haven’t considered. Let’s face it, we don’t live in a bubble filled with nothing but celery sticks and treadmills. “Everyone’s socioeconomic domain is different, and that particular mix of factors, including where you work, dictates lifestyle choices, which then trickle down to weight,” says Willett’s co-author, Malissa Wood, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Meanwhile, that urge to snack all day is likely just your mind tricking you into thinking you’re hungry because it craves a distraction. “Eating is often something to do to help you get through the challenges of work,” says Charles Passler, a nutritionist in New York. Or you may just be thirsty. “Being hydrated keeps your brain focused and puts something in your system so you realize that you don’t actually need food,” he says.
Luckily office life doesn’t have to be so detrimental. “Strolling is important in a workday,” says Levine, who notes that when using a treadmill desk, for example, you’re meant to be moving at about a mile an hour, a super-slow-mo speed that allows you to safely write e-mails and talk on the phone. (Even Victoria Beckham has been spotted walking in stilettos while typing away.) And because those are tasks that often take up much of the day, “all of a sudden you get two extra hours of work where you’re alert and engaged,” he says. So the solution is simple: To turn the weight loss odds at the office in your favor, move your meetings. Literally.