Is Your Desk Job Killing You?

By Bryan McWhorter
Last updated: November 12, 2018
Key Takeaways

How to incorporate movement into your sedentary job.

The average office worker is at a higher risk of early mortality due to prolonged periods of sitting. Working at a desk can present its own set of health hazards. Did you know long periods of sitting can:


  • Diminish the effectiveness of your immune system
  • Increase depression, anxiety, stress, and exhaustion
  • Increase your risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and heart attack
  • Cause a loss of flexibility and muscle mass
  • Lower testosterone for men
  • Cause weight gain
  • Increase the chance of diabetes


None of those are appealing, yet the likelihood of these is increased significantly with a sedentary lifestyle.

When you consider that we work to earn a living, how ironic is it that our sedentary work may slowly be killing us. At the very least, it is threatening our health, which directly impacts our quality of life. According the American Osteopathic Association, a sedentary lifestyle can be just as dangerous—if not more—than smoking.

As if inactivity with a desk job wasn’t unhealthy enough, throw in your basic office diet of vending machine food, coffee, and soda and the future of our health does not look good.

The Good News: It's Easy to Turn This Around

Getting or staying healthy is easier than you may think. It’s amazing how responsive the human body is to even the slightest increase in activities and healthy choices. Small changes can bring big rewards. But this is a bit of a double edge sword insofar as these small activates are easy to do and they are just as easy not to do.

Small activities done consistently can eliminate many of the negative aspects inherent with working in a sedentary job. What is even more amazing is that most of the activities I will mention have some instantaneous benefits, and nothing beats getting short-term benefits while building long-term results. Whenever you take a moment or two to stretch, walk, or perform any activity (other than sitting), you will immediately feel a little refreshed. Think of it as spending energy to gain energy.


Webinar On-Demand: Sitting Disease and Ergonomics: Evidence & Best Practice Solutions

The Micro-Break

Never sit longer than 30 minutes without standing and moving. Large amounts of research has validated that micro-breaks of one to two minutes performed every 20 to 30 minutes can improve levels of work performance, comfort, alertness, and fight diseases associated with long periods of inactivity.

Plan micro-breaks at least every thirty minutes to re-energize. Stand up and stretch, grab a drink of water, but be sure to stand for at least one minute before sitting back down. This will also clear your head and refresh your focus.

If your work involves desk work and other activities, try to plan intervals that break up the desk work. Movement fuels your body, and breaking up your sedentary work will help you stay energized.

I have used the micro-break strategy through most of my career. I often break up 30-minute work intervals with stretches and isometrics. The main point is to stand for at least one minute after every 30 minutes of work.


Think of this as office yoga. Typical desk work offers little in terms of range of motion. Long periods of uninterrupted sitting can impact your spine, joints, and muscles, causing stiffness and cost you range of motion over time.

Any stretches that can be done without being too intrusive to coworkers is fine. Stretching increases blood flow and reduces muscle fatigue. It can help relieve stress as you mentally disengage from your work and step away to your happy place (for more on how moving the body is beneficial to your mental state, check out Dear Body, It's Me, Brain).

You will find that just a few seconds of holding stretches can bring relief to stiff muscles and joints while giving you a second wind. Your muscles and joints will feel much better with even minimal stretching.


Have five seconds? You have time for an isometric exercise. This is a form of strength training that involves no range of motion. An isometric exercise is a form of exercise involving the static contraction of a muscle without any visible movement in the angle of the joint.

Here's an example you can try: hold your hands together like you are about to clap, hands cupped. Keep your elbows raised. Now for the next five seconds push your hands against each other as hard as you can. You will feel your muscles in your arms, shoulders, and chest contract. Perform three sets of five second holds. You just performed an effective strength training exercise without leaving your desk.

There are many variations of isometric exercises you can perform at your desk. A simple Google or YouTube search will find instructions for many of them.

Isometrics are great because they only take seconds and they do not draw unnecessary attention like doing pushups would. It still should be your goal to stand every thirty minutes, but isometrics are about as quick and effective as it gets.

Help Someone

Take a moment or two to help out a coworker or a customer. This may be one of the best strategies for reinvigorating yourself. Multiple studies have proven that when we do something nice for someone else our bodies produce our happy chemicals of serotonin and oxytocin. Happiness and emotional well-being not only give us energy but make us a lot more fun to be around.

Have you ever been really tired in the afternoon and found yourself full of energy after joking with a coworker? A little laughter and camaraderie can be just the boost needed to re-energize your day.

Short Workouts

Research as shown that even ten-minute workouts are extremely beneficial. Try to schedule a ten-minute workout before or after work or maybe during lunch. Even brisk walks or taking the stairs can serve as your workout (see Walk for Health for a brief discussion of the health benefits of walking). Riding a bike to work is another great way to offset the inactivity of desk work. With this strategy, you’re offsetting the effects of sitting most the day by engaging in regular, scheduled exercise.

Control Your Diet

We may be limited in our activity levels due to work constraints, but our diet is typically more under our control. Eating sensibly can give you energy throughout the day while controlling weight gain.

Eat for energy by taking healthy snacks to work, such as nuts, vegetables, and natural foods. Our digestive system is one of our biggest energy drains but by eating nutrient rich foods and drinking plenty of water, we can increase our health and energy levels.

Plan Activity to Counter the Inactivity

When our work calls for us to spend long periods of time in sedentary work, it’s a good idea to reverse the negative effects by planning activities. This could mean shutting down Netflix and going for a nice walk. Any hobby or activity that gets you moving is good.

It's easy to maintain or regain good health. No large amounts of effort is required. Small amounts of time dedicated to stretching and moving, if done consistently, can offset most of the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

Good things in life rarely happen by accident. If you want to remain healthy, you must take into account all work-related health hazards. A sedentary work schedule presents real health risks. Plan your counter measures to include micro-breaks, activities that get you moving for at least ten minutes, and healthy eating.

I can guarantee your health will benefit and—who knows?—you may even get a little more fulfillment from your work as your energy positively influences your performance and coworkers.

Webinar On-Demand: Sitting Disease and Ergonomics: Evidence & Best Practice Solutions

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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

Bryan McWhorter

Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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