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Health hazards of a desk jockey

Erin Crowell - February 28th, 2011
Health Hazards of a Desk Jockey: Sitting at a desk all day is hell on your body
By Erin Crowell
“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer
screens all day.” – from the 1999 film Office Space

If you work at a desk, chances are, you had to work hard to get there –
your days as a pre-teen dishwasher are as far behind as your college
tuition payments. This is the culmination of years of education and
planning. Perhaps this desk is mahogany or there’s a sleek Mac at your
fingertips, along with an expensive office chair from eBay that is as
comfortable as a cradle.
You’ve made it – and now that desk is your home. Eight hours a day. Five
days a week. 260 days a year.
All that time staring at a computer screen and sitting on your rump adds
up – and, while quite the opposite from skydiving or bull riding,
scientists say the life of a desk jockey is also hazardous to the health.
Research shows that prolonged time at your desk can lead to a slew of
health issues such as computer vision syndrome, increased risk for type 2
diabetes, arthritis and even a larger waistline.

According to a recent study published by the American Journal of
Epidemiology, prolonged inactivity, such as sitting, increases your risk
for developing type 2 diabetes by seven percent. Other serious health
problems include a higher level of triglycerides, higher blood pressure,
increased body inflammation and lower levels of “good” cholesterol.
A New York Times article published last July explored the physiological
effects of prolonged sitting, reporting that “if you sit for long
hours…your muscles, unused for hours at a time, change in subtle fashion,
and as a result, your risk for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases
can rise.”
But what about your daily workout? That must lower your risk, right?
The article also stated that “Regular workout sessions do not appear to
fully undo the effects of prolonged sitting. ‘There seem to be different
pathways involved in the beneficial physiological effects of exercising
and the deleterious impacts of sitting,’ says Tatiana Warren, a graduate
student in exercise science at the University of South Carolina.”
Aside from a sluggish metabolism and changes in your muscles’ physiology,
sitting also wreaks havoc on your posture.
“During office chair sitting, the hamstring muscles are inactive, and are
held at a shortened length,” according to the American Journal of Physical
Medicine. “Tight hamstrings are associated with back pain. The reason is
that tight hamstrings stop the hips from flexing during forward bending.
That forces the lower back to bend beyond its strong middle range.”
“A lot of people will come into the office with issues from competitive
stress related to their occupation,” says Dr. Bradley Schiller of Back on
Track Chiropractic in Traverse City.
For those working at a desk, Schiller says the most common stress is from
“gorilla” posture.
“Shoulders roll in, the head goes forward…unless you’re doing something to
counteract that position, your body becomes accustomed to that position,”
he says.
Schiller recommends a stretch that can be done right in the office.
In a doorway, place both hands on either side of the doorway and walk
forward, bringing your head back and chest forward. This helps counter
that “gorilla” posture at the desk.
He also recommends replacing the office chair with a balance ball to help
improve posture – it’s a seating option Hagerty Insurance of Traverse City
provides to its employees.
“Employees have the option of sitting on exercise balls instead of
chairs,” said Susan Vigland, Hagerty training & wellness manager. “Hagerty
provides balls in various sizes. It’s great for toning the core and
encourages more movement than a regular office chair.”
The company also runs a two-week 10k step challenge to encourage employees
to take as many steps throughout their workday as possible.

If you work at a desk, chances are there’s a computer in your face.
Because of this, you’ll begin to see another problem, literally.
The American Optometric Association (AOA) has categorized this problem as
computer vision syndrome (CVS), which is characterized by visual symptoms
resulting from interaction with a computer display or its environment. The
Association highlights studies that indicate visual symptoms occur in 50%
to 90% of video display terminal workers.
Symptoms include eye strain (blurred distant vision), fatigue (dry or
irritated eyes), headache (neck and/or backaches) and blurred near vision
(or double vision).
Desk jockeys aren’t the only ones at risk for developing vision problems
–youth ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day in front
of a computer, smart phone or television screen, according to a January
2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation – that’s more than 52 hours a
So how do you save your vision if your job depends on using a computer?
Drs. Mark Noss and Rebekah Noss Lynch of Full Spectrum Eyecare in Traverse
City offer their patients several steps for relieving CVS, which include:
A comprehensive eye exam, proper lighting, minimizing glare (reflective
surfaces in the work space), using upgraded displays (such as flat-panel
LCD), adjusting computer screen brightness/contrast, blinking more
frequently (which keeps the eyes wet), taking frequent breaks and doing
eye exercises.
Still want to be able to see the football scoreboard by the time your son
is playing college ball? Try looking away from your computer at least
every 20 minutes and study an object that is at least 20 feet away (like
the bubbles gurgling in the office water cooler) and do so for at least 20
Drs. Noss and Lynch call this the “20-20-20 rule.”
The overall message is, if you work a desk job, take a break – whether
it’s doing laps around the copy room, taking a moment to stand while on
the phone or eyeing the new hire across the hall, doing so will help ease
the burden on your body, as well as on your mind.

Sans Seat

By Erin Crowell

I entered the world of desk jockeying when I started my job at the
Northern Express in late 2008. Having spent a majority of my life on my
feet, for previous work and recreation, I wasn’t used to sitting for long
periods of time.
Boy, has that changed.
While I spend some time out of the office talking to sources for articles,
I still spend a good six to eight hours at my desk – chained, you could
say (no offense, boss).
After reading the articles, listening to health professionals and finding
myself preferring to sit all the time (I once perched myself on our
kitchen counter after just five minutes of conversing with company), I
made the decision to do something about it.
If you find it hard to remember to get up from your desk every so often,
why not take the sitting portion completely out of the equation?

Adjustable desks, which allow you to sit or stand throughout the workday,
can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 – not exactly in my budget. So, I
did some measurements, went to Home Depot and told a helpful—and very
patient—associate what I was looking for.
He cut my dimensions from a 4’x8’ melamine particle board—which costs just
over $30—and sent me on my way with two corner braces and a box of screws.
Under an hour of work later, I had a wood platform that would house my
computer monitor, keyboard and mouse – all for under $40.
I now stand at my computer, allowing myself to sit for lunch or when
proofing pages for the newspaper. At first, it was difficult to stand for
long periods of time; but having been at it for over a month now, I’ve
noticed I will even eat my lunch and proof pages while standing. Away
from the office, I now prefer to stand instead of sit.
Standing converts, as well as health experts, claim there are several
benefits to standing at work, including:
• Improved focus
• Higher level of activity (you take more steps if already standing,
versus having to get up from a sitting position)
• Higher calorie burn and muscle engagement (it takes more energy to stand
than sit)
• Decreased fatigue
• Better posture
For myself, I feel more awake throughout the day and have eliminated the
habit of slouching. I feel less distracted, but at the same time, am more
willing to walk across the room to talk to a co-worker versus sending an
email. As far as calorie burn goes, I’d like to think my hips are
shrinking – wishful thinking, of course.
So what is the only downfall to standing at work?
Nothing offsets a nice, professional outfit like a pair of tennis shoes.

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