Sat, Jan-23-21, 03:43
Combat a sedentary working-from-home life with intermittent activity
If sitting is the new smoking how can I avoid being a WFH casualty?
You can reduce the chances of being a sitting duck for ill health by combating sedentary working-from-home life with intermittent activity
You’ve heard of intermittent ~fasting. Now get ready for intermittent activity, the latest ~antidote health experts are proposing to help combat the devastating effects of all the additional hours of sitting we’ve been doing since March – with more to come.
The other pandemic
Scientists have been warning about the dangers of prolonged sitting for the past five years. According to one systematic review in 2015, more than half the average person’s life is spent sitting and that alone can raise the risk of dying prematurely, as well as of developing type 2 diabetes, heart ~disease and dementia. More recently, in June, findings published in the Journal of the American Medical ~Association found that long periods spent sitting were associated with a higher risk of dying from ~cancer. Now, as restrictions continue in the new year, our sedentary lifestyles – and corresponding health issues – are set to get worse.
The rise of the inactive exerciser
You may be thinking, “But I exercise for an hour most days of the week, so sitting at my desk for the rest of the day doesn’t matter.” It does, says James Betts, professor of metabolic physiology at the University of Bath.
People like myself are among an increasing breed of “inactive or sedentary exercisers” who don’t move around much in the day because they think doing an hour’s structured exercise gets them a free pass to sitting all day. “There’s a general misconception that if you exercise or do an active commute then sit at a desk all day, it’s fine because you have exercised,” says Prof Betts. “But physical activity and doing exercise are two different things. Sedentary time is bad for you whether or not you exercise. If someone said to you, ‘Well I smoke, but it’s OK because I exercise,’ it wouldn’t make sense. That’s the same idea. An hour’s exercise everyday won’t negate the effects that sitting all day can have on your cardiac, metabolic and neurological health.”
The catalogue of ways being sedentary affects every organ in the body, he says, includes muscles seizing up, back problems, joint aches, blood pooling in the lower limbs that can cause problems in the circulatory system, poor ~metabolic health, an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Ah yes, the old lockdown weight gain. Research is showing that this is ~little mitigated by taking the Government-sanctioned daily exercise, if you’re basically inactive. I work out for an hour a day, four to five times a week, but without an active commute and running around an office, I have still gained an impossible-to-shift 4.5lb since March, much like about a third of Britain’s population.
According to the Covid Symptom Study from King’s College London on more than 1.6 million Britons, the average gains reported since March were between 1.6lb and 6.5lb. That’s twice as much as we typically gain in the Christmas holidays (0.8lb). The largest gains were made by those who said they snacked more, drank more alcohol and, indeed, moved less.
And, if you’re wondering if an expensive standing desk will solve the ~problem, don’t bother, says Prof Betts. His team did a study into standing versus sitting while working and participants only burned an additional nine calories an hour – about the equivalent of a stick of celery. “Standing doesn’t have a big effect on energy expenditure – in the study we did, standing had virtually the same energy expenditure as sitting,” he says.
Not exactly new
Of course, the idea of taking activity breaks isn’t new. But no one has come up with the perfect science-backed ratio of sedentary versus activity time in any given workday hour, says Prof Betts. “Having said that, we can’t wait for scientists to get an activity recommendation for people because that could take forever,” he adds. Just as the perfect fasting diet ratios haven’t been mapped out in the research, he points out, and experts such as Michael Mosley have interpreted what evidence we have into the 5:2 or 16:8 diets, so too is what’s happening with activity. “Health experts such as physiotherapists and occupational psychologists are creating adequate frameworks like 45:15 until the research catches up,” says Prof Betts. “But, if you give a specific number, it can feel like too much for people. Generally, doing more than you did yesterday is a good starting point.”
If the idea of taking a 15-minute break every hour is too much, you might not need to, says chartered physiotherapist Finola Burrell. “There’s good research to show that if you get up and move for only one to two minutes every half-hour, you can prevent muscle aches and pains and help lower blood sugar and incidences that give people blood pressure problems, as well as improve your concentration,” she explains.
Making work breaks work
That seems more realistic than 45:15. Still, performance psychologist Keith Goddard concedes that in each 15-minute break, you’re not trying to do only physical activity. “That would be just another thing you have to achieve,” he reasons. First, always get up and walk around, always drink some water: “Hydration is key to concentration,” adds Goddard. “Then, in each break, take one of the five aspects of your wellbeing – social, physical, mental, ~emotional and nutritional – and do something for that for 15 minutes.” That could be exercise, meditation, messaging someone, having a snack, listening to an uplifting piece of music, doing some skipping, taking a walk, skateboarding around the living room, ~whatever makes you feel better.
Indeed, there are many reasons to take a wellbeing break every hour that aren’t related to our physical health, too. First, it’s better for performance. “There’s a belief that we should be full-on for eight hours and then stop,” says Goddard. “But that doesn’t optimise performance. If you look at sports psychology, you wouldn’t exercise or train an athlete physically for eight hours. But we do that to our brains.”
Secondly, we need to avoid that grinding routine of back-to-back screen time known as Zoom fatigue. It’s real, too. Researchers at Microsoft’s Human Factor Labs found that brainwave activity associated with stress and overwork were significantly higher as a result of video meetings than in-person get-togethers, and that concentration fatigue sets in on average 30 to 40 minutes into such meetings.
Finally, it’s important to reset your brain, as Goddard puts it, especially if you’ve just had “words” with someone. “After an antagonistic meeting, everything in your body is in threat or ~defensive mode with stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol pumping around,” he says. “Before lockdown, you would have had to walk from meeting to meeting, or go and make a cup of coffee, to help that pass. But now, people are going from an emotional or angry video call to one where they have to be caring or creative, without any breaks. Taking a timeout and understanding where you are emotionally – and having some tools to lift and shift those feelings – is important.”
The Lift and Shift toolbox
In intermittent activity, you work for a set period of around 45 minutes, then have a break. The concept is introduced to me by Keith Goddard, a performance psychologist with Kameleon Solutions who works with high-level corporate management and Olympic athletes. He came up with the 45:15 activity concept to help the corporate types get the best out of their productivity while also promoting overall health and wellbeing.
But my first reaction was, “Yeah, right. Take 15 minutes off every hour? Do you know how busy my day is?”
“People are often mortified when I first propose this, especially those in senior corporate jobs,” says Goddard. “But we know that after 25-60 minutes of solid work, concentration starts to wane [see below] and you need to do something else anyway. After a few weeks, people report feeling more in control of the day by stepping back and doing things for themselves and we know from pressure management research that feeling in control is a key to managing a stressful workload. A few weeks in, a lot of people are like, ‘D’oh! Why didn’t I start doing this sooner?’ ”
I decided to put the 45:15 idea to the test. Since lockdown means that ~little is allowed but sitting and typing, I prepared an activity toolbox to help “lift and shift” my mind and body through the day. A lot of music: Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma for when I needed to focus, Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major for when I was chuffed with myself, and Foo Fighters’ Times Like These for the more difficult days. Also on my list of things to do during my 15 minutes away from the desk were skipping, running up and down the stairs, calling people, doing mobility exercises with a band for my lockdown-ruined shoulders, quick jogs in the wetlands around my home, meditating, doing breathing exercises, sun salutations, colouring my roots, planting the little indoor ~garden I’ve been planning for weeks, texting people, and practicing my tennis strokes. It was strange at first, to down tools and do something completely different, but after a few days it started to feel like having a mini-weekend in every hour.
It felt so indulgent that I added useful things like laundry, cleaning and bill-paying to my growing list. But that’s not how it works, says Goddard. It has to be activities that promote wellbeing.
“The guilt people have around ~taking 15 minutes every hour to spend on their own wellbeing always astounds me,” he says. “We have been socialised to do, do, do, in order to prove our worth and usefulness. But all the performance research suggests that if you ‘do’ in a more focused way, then give back something to your own wellbeing, before you do again, you are working in a healthier way.”
It makes sense somewhere in my gut, even though my head is still screaming, “I haven’t got time for this nonsense!”
That guilty scream surfaced each time my phone pinged to signal the end of a 45-minute window. There were a few times when I literally couldn’t tear myself away from a task, but then two hours later, I would get that old screen fatigue feeling, where your brain is melting out of your eyes.
With the gyms closed, and being a data junkie, I could compare it with a typical gym week in Fitbit activity terms. While practising 45:15, I managed an average of 11,967 steps a day, compared with 9,483 in the previous gym week. More surprising was that by adding 15 minutes of skipping, two 15-minute walks/jogs and one 15-minute bout of running up and down the stairs most days, I stayed in the green zone for training – without the gym.
What about productivity? My dry eyes have improved beyond measure. I’m averaging about six pints of water a day and I haven’t gained any weight. Where meetings have overrun I’ve switched off my camera, muted myself, got up and walked around, stretched my legs and done a few squats while continuing to listen. I’ve finished everything, with a feeling at the end of the day of having enough energy to do something other than stare at the TV – if anything else were allowed, of course.
Will I be continuing? It’s not easy to tear yourself away from a task, especially when you’re in the flow of work. But for me it was worth it. I learned that flow comes straight back when you come back to a task more refreshed. After only a week, I forgot to set the alarm and, a bit like Pavlov’s dogs, was restless and wondering why the bell hadn’t gone off by around the 47-minute mark. Most of all, minus my beloved office life, I seem to enjoy working at home more. I feel more connected and awake, as though some of the things I love in non-work life have crept into the prison that was me versus screen each day. I hope it catches on.