6 Hacks for a Healthier Workspace

By Beth Howard | September 21, 2017 | Rally Health


Quick. Are you sitting down? You might want to take a short sprint to the water cooler or just get up and stretch.

A growing body of research shows that logging long hours behind a desk raises the risk of chronic health ills like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and even cancer. “There’s a consistent association between sitting and health,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, PhD, associate executive director for population science at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA. “We’re not designed to be sedentary.”

Because of that, some companies are redesigning their workspaces to limit harmful sitting time and encourage movement. That’s welcome news as work itself has become much more sedentary. A 2011 study found that jobs requiring moderate physical activity account for only 20 percent of the labor market, down from 50 percent in 1960. Luckily a 2015 survey from the Society for Human Resources Management found that almost 70 percent of workplace organizations offered some type of wellness program, resource, or service — often involving activity — up from 58 percent in 2008.

The threat of inactivity is real. In one landmark study, Pennington researchers found that people who spent most of the day sitting were 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks. In another study, which used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers estimated that if everyone sat no more than three hours a day, the average life span would rise by two years.

“Breast cancer has a dose-dependent relationship with sitting time,” says James A. Levine, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and author of Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It“The more a person sits in a group, the greater their risk of getting the disease.”

Sitting or lying for hours at a time inactivates the body’s large muscles, especially those in the legs and back, triggering a cascade of harmful metabolic changes. “Sitting disrupts blood sugar levels, lowers the breakdown of harmful cholesterol, and reduces calorie burning,” says Katzmarzyk. According to a study from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, just one day of inactivity reduced insulin action by an average of 40 percent in a group of men and women.

Getting up and moving has the opposite effect. Taking a two-minute walking break every 20 minutes significantly improved glucose metabolism among subjects in a study from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

“We designed a society where everyone was meant to be seated for as long as possible,” says Levine. “But now we understand that that was a bad idea and ingenuity and creativity are reversing that.”

Here are some ideas from groundbreaking workplaces to help you DIY design your own workspace for movement.

Bicycle racks

Cycling to work is a great way to become more active. Proper bicycle storage can make the difference between commuting on two wheels or sitting behind the wheel. At the Medibank Place building in Melbourne, Australia, designed to emphasize employee health and wellness, a bike ramp spirals up from the street directly into the building to an internal bike storage area. The feature has led to a 60 percent rise in staff members’ cycling to work.

The Medibank Place building's bicycle ramp. Photo by Earl Carter, courtesy of HASSELL

The hack: Ask about storing your bike in your building. If there’s no option internally, check around the neighborhood for safe and secure options. Or check to see if your city is one of the more than 100 that offers a bike share program that allows commuters to pick up a bike in one location and check it back in at another close to work.

Walking tracks

The 25,000-square-foot 1-800-LAW-FIRM headquarters, in Southfield, Michigan, has a track inside the office, as well as a gym, so that employees can get up and get moving easily.


The 1-800-LAW-FIRM walking track. Photo by Kevin Shea, courtesy of 1-800-LAW-FIRM

The hack: Your office probably doesn't have an indoor walking track. So consider organizing walking meetings, either around the neighborhood or a nearby park. Walking meetings are becoming popular—and they get results. A recent study from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, found that office workers who substituted one seated meeting a week for a walking meeting gained 10 additional minutes of physical activity. Alternatively, “rather than sit down during meetings and conferences, stand in back of the room,” suggests Katzmarzyk.

Inviting staircases

The MediBank also incorporates attractive and open staircases in its Melbourne building, which encourage employees to walk up and down, rather than take the elevator. In fact, workers are more likely to take the stairs when they are integrated as a design feature, rather than hidden in a dark stairwell.


Staircases in the Medibank Place building. Photo by Earl Carter, courtesy of HASSELL

The hack: Make a point to walk up and down the stairs whenever possible—say, on the way in to or out of work, or during your lunch break. “If you have to see somebody on a different floor, use the stairs,” says Katzmarzyk. “Don’t send email.” And schedule meetings on other floors so you and your co-workers can take the stairs more frequently.

Decentralized work spaces

Medibank and other activity-oriented companies are designing buildings that enhance movement by placing common areas — printer rooms, mailrooms, lounges and restrooms — a distance from desks. Skype and Google have casual meeting and work areas that encourage people to move around rather than just stay planted at a desk all day long.

The hack: If you don't have an open floor plan at work, make a point of getting up and walking somewhere once an hour, Levine says. Talk to a colleague in person rather than sending an email – it might even be faster. Or take a walk outside for a breath of fresh air. Try drinking more water, as going to the water cooler and restroom will break up sitting time.

Onsite play spaces

More and more companies are providing onsite fitness facilities for employees. The marketing and tech company Red Ventures gives employees access to an indoor basketball court, bowling alley, fitness center, yoga studio, and even a putting green at its campuses in South Carolina and North Carolina. Workers at Rodale, a publishing company in Emmaus, PA, can take a jog on the mile-long trail around the company compound. And pickup basketball and beach volleyball are available to employees at ViaSat, a tech company based in Carlsbad, CA.

Genevieve Story, Robert Reese, Hannah McGoldrick, Runner Runner Runner, Tshirt, Tank

Runners on Rodale's on-site track. Photo by Matt Rainey for Runner's World

The hack: If you don’t have a company gym, organize a lunchtime walking or running club. Or bring in a tai chi or yoga instructor to conduct a class during the workday once a week.

Nonsitting desks

Standing up is catching on. Steelcase, a major office furniture maker, saw sales of its height-adjustable desks grow fivefold between 2007 and 2012.

Even better, Levine suggests, add a treadmill so you can walk while you’re working. Research shows it can pay off in more ways than one. When the Educational Credit Management Corporation, a nonprofit student loan company in Minnesota gave 36 employees treadmill desks, not only did activity levels surge over the course of the year, but workers also lost an average of three pounds. Obese employees lost even more, five pounds on average.

The hack: If your company offers stand-up desks, take them up on it. Then make sure you use them. If you need a reminder, there are a number of free apps, like Awareness (Windows or Mac), or Time Out that track your activity and let you know it’s time for a break. If not, consider splurging for a stand-up desk kit yourself. There are many options available, starting under $100.

Levine says people who have desks that enable them to stand don’t end up standing all day, but they do end up moving one to two hours a day more. A good rule of thumb is to stand up every 20 minutes; The frequency of breaks from sitting is as important as how long they are. Research from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, found that people who took the most breaks from sedentary time had on average a smaller waist size, a lower body-mass index, and reduced triglycerides, a particularly unhealthy type of blood fat.

It can take awhile for new habits to set in. Start slowly but keep adding active time to your workday. “You don’t have to do everything walking or standing all day,” Levine says. “That doesn’t work. But adopting small behaviors over time can make a big difference in your health and well-being.”

Selected References

Timothy S. Church, et al. "Trends over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity." PLOS One. May 25, 2011.

Katzmarzyk PT, et al. "Sitting Time and Mortality From All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. May 2009.

Genevieve N. Healy, et al. "Breaks in Sedentary Time: Beneficial Associations With Metabolic Risk." Diabetes Care. April 31, 2008.


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