Vail health feature: Combat health problems caused by sedentary work
Special to the Daily
Tips for improving desk posture, as prescribed by Todd Ward, clinic manager and physical therapist at Howard Head Sports Medicine.
• Hands, wrists and forearms are straight and roughly parallel to the floor.
• Head is level, or bent slightly forward, balanced and generally in line with the torso.
• Shoulders are relaxed and upper arms hang normally at the side of the body.
• Elbows in close bent between 90 degrees and 120 degrees.
• Feet are fully supported by the floor, or a footrest may be used if the desk height is not adjustable.
• Back is fully supported with appropriate lumbar support when sitting vertical or leaning back slightly.
• Thighs and hips are supported by a well-padded seat and parallel to the floor.
• Knees are about the same height as hips, with the feet slightly forward.
The Vail Valley is a place known for its active lifestyle, yet for many Eagle County residents, and countless Americans in general, the daily grind is largely composed of sitting. Although sitting behind a desk is a necessary part of the workday, introducing movement into time spent at the office is crucial for mental well-being and an important part of physical health.
Local health professionals at the Steadman Clinic and Vail Valley Medical Center have studied the risks of sedentary behavior and offer comprehensive strategies for incorporating movement into a day at the office.
Risks of sitting
The health problems associated with sedentary behavior are broad, with more minor side effects observed in the form of nagging pain, decreased range of motion, impaired posture and slower brain function. In particular, sedentary hours logged at a desk often lend themselves to mental fatigue, along with more obvious physical side effects.
Cacky Ryan, director of corporate services for Vail Valley Medical Center’s Comprehensive Occupational Medicine Program, explains that some of the health risks can be particularly dangerous over the long term.
“Researchers have linked sitting for prolonged periods with a number of health problems,” she said, “These include an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the obesity epidemic, which is partly due to sedentary behavior, is expected to reach 50 percent of the American population by 2030. The economic side effects of these more serious health problems tend to be multifaceted, with health care costs rising annually, contributing to $66 billion each year for obesity-related expenses alone. According to OSHA, employee health care costs American businesses $900 billion annually and leads to hundreds of billions of dollars more in lost economic productivity.
Movement is key
When it comes to combating some of the downsides of desk work, movement is the best medicine. Simply standing every 20 minutes is an important part of blood flow and causes big muscle groups to contract and improve circulation. Ryan advises that these periodic muscle actions are crucial, even for employees that are active outside work.
“A long bike ride or a day of skiing does not combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle,” she said. “The damage of sitting all day, every day, is cumulative, which is why it’s so important to take breaks during the day.”
Todd Ward, a clinic manager and physical therapist at Howard Head Sports Medicine, agrees that physical activity is the best solution, along with adjusting some common workplace habits.
“You should change your working position frequently throughout the day. Make small adjustments to your chair or backrest, stretch your fingers, hands, arms and torso and, finally, stand up and walk around for a few minutes periodically,” he said.
In this sense, it’s important to incorporate some new patterns into the workday. Take phone calls standing up, or introduce walking meetings as an activity-based way to exchange ideas with co-workers. Similarly, getting into the habit of walking to a co-worker’s office to ask a question or relay a piece of information, as opposed to emailing or calling them, is a beneficial way to keep the blood flowing.
Develop a wellness plan
Steadman Clinic Director of Operations Amy Manske similarly suggests developing a wellness plan at the office as another means to encourage more frequent movement. In this sense, incorporating movement goals and office challenges into a workplace plan are effective ways to get the whole office motivated to move.
“Office challenges don’t need to be elaborate,” Manske said. “A simple Tuesday squat challenge can be recorded on a poster board and create friendly competition in a smaller office setting.”
FitBits offer a more technological way to get coworkers standing throughout the day by tracking individual results or recording team challenges among different parts of the office. Oftentimes, being able to see movement patterns motivates users to take more frequent breaks from the chair.
Additionally, Manske recommends a fitness calendar as an easy way to plan out individual movement challenges or group activities or offer healthy recipes to try at home.
“Changing things up is the best way to keep people happy,” Manske said. “There are a lot of different ways to encourage more physical activity; it just takes a little bit of creativity.”
Manske also advocates for some simple changes to workplace amenities, such as more water jugs, to create more of an incentive to walk to a different part of the office. Standing desks and fitness ball chairs have also been popular at the Steadman Clinic office and are excellent ways to work in a more conducive manner for blood flow, she said.