Working Toward Weight Gain

A few days ago, I was in the office of my ophthalmologist for my annual eye exam. The practice is huge, and the volume of patients is processed–so to speak–by a row of administrative personnel, each sitting in a cubicle. I checked in at one such space and later checked out with the same clerk. As I watched her scan the computer to then print out the appropriate paperwork, it occurred to me that her job was almost totally sedentary. She did not have to move more than a few inches to access her computer, and the printer was under her desk so she did not have to walk over to another area to retrieve a printout. She was not chained to her chair, yet I doubt she was able to leave it until lunch and then again when the office closed. Unless she had far to go for lunch, or exercised during that noon break, she was completely sedentary for hours.

Until robots take over many of the routine jobs now performed by humans, more and more employees will be working in occupations characterized by an absence of physical activity. About seven years ago, a report was published on changes in physical activity related to occupation over the past fifty years in the United States. The authors used data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics that analyzed the amount of energy expended for jobs in private industry from l960 on. When the data were first collected in the early l960s, almost half of non-government jobs required moderate to strenuous physical activity. 50 years later, this number dropped to 20 percent. The authors translated these figures into changes in the number of calories that are expended in work and stated, “We estimated a reduction of more than 100 calories per day in occupation-related energy expenditure over the last 50 years.”

50 years ago, the woman processing my eye doctor’s records would have been using a typewriter and thus expending more energy than tapping on a computer keyboard. She probably would have to get up from her chair and walk to the office copy machine to make a copy of my record rather than pushing a button on her computer and reaching under her desk to retrieve the paper from the printer. Multiply this by every patient, every five minutes or so, and her calorie output would have been considerably more than it is today.

The authors of this report discussed the implications of the decrease in work-related physical activity as a risk factor for obesity. They suggested that as we increase the use of labor-saving, we are promoting the increase in weight of the population in general.

They recommend physical activity to compensate for the sedentary nature of many occupations. According to them, if the woman processing my paperwork engages in 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, she will compensate for her lack of activity during her work hours. But, as they point out, only one in four Americans meets this goal. Given the long commuting time many workers face, as well as the unending tasks to be done at home, it is unlikely that the three out of four Americans who are not exercising will suddenly find the time to do so during their limited after work hours. And even if some physical activity occurs on weekends, unless it is prolonged it probably will not compensate for the inert workweek.

Chairs perched on bicycle pedals and mini treadmills, are now being used by many who otherwise might be stuck unmoving an office chair. Those who fear the consequences of prolonged inactivity welcome the opportunity to move the bottom half of the body while the head and hands are occupied in writing reports or code. The use of these devices could be expanded to a much larger population such as medical office workers or anyone else forced to spend most of the workday seated. However, this is unlikely to occur; in addition to the obvious cost of such devices, it might seem strange to check into a medical office for an appointment and find the medical secretary bouncing up and down on her under-desk pedals.

Another option is to schedule walking breaks for workers who otherwise have little opportunity to stand up, let alone walk. This requires time and attention to the employee’s schedule; five-minute walking breaks when patients are waiting in line to be checked in or out means having someone available to cover while the break occurs. This may be too much trouble logistically and too costly financially. Ironically, employees who still smoke and must leave the workplace to do so have a built-in opportunity to move. If they can take a break to smoke, why shouldn’t others be allowed to take a break to move?

Another solution is to rotate the sitting employee into positions that require walking so that for some of the work day he or she is released from the chair. In the office I have referenced, another employee takes the patient to the area where the doctor’s office is located. (The practice is so large one almost needs a GPS system to find the appropriate office by oneself.) If the person checking people in and out were to be a patient escort for part of the day, or some other job that required walking, then the sedentary routine would be broken.

But these are rather weak solutions to a major problem confronting most occupations: How do all of us whose work is associated with being relatively inert get enough physical activity without sacrificing sleep, family, social obligations, and financial goals? Perhaps the answer is for workplaces to offer brief opportunities to stretch and to move, even if it is only for 15 to 20 minutes a day.

It may not be enough to compensate for all those hours of sitting, but it is a start.

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