Back in the day, before people wised up about how tobacco kills (more than 7 million annually to be exact), many participated in what was called a “smoke break.” Of course, it entailed engaging in a deadly act, but it also encouraged a good-for-you habit: Taking a time-out from whatever you were doing. With the decline in smoking cigarettes came a drop in hitting the pause button throughout the day. A 2014 study of more than 200 office workers in the U.S. and Canada found that 55 percent felt they couldn’t leave their desks and take a break, and only a quarter of those actually stepped out to lunch.
Not taking a breather is a recipe for trouble, especially if you have a desk job. When you’re seated at a computer for long periods, you’re also slowly shutting off our butt muscles and, sometimes, forgetting to breathe. It is about as inactive as you can get other than sleeping. And while sleeping is good for the body, a low level of physical activity is not. A sedentary lifestyle is a known risk factor for reduced mobility—the kind that has a direct impact on your ability stand up, walk around, put dishes away in cupboards, and complete your daily errands.
“The human body is incredibly adaptable,” says Sonima’s pain and anatomy advisor, Pete Egoscue, creator of the Egoscue Method, an exercise therapy program designed to heal chronic pain. “When we establish a pattern, our muscle memory adapts to it. If the pattern is just in one plane—you know, sitting to standing to walking to sitting—then the body adapts and adopts those positions.”
That doesn’t mean you have to start doing jumping jacks at your desk to improve your health (though it couldn’t hurt!). Simply breaking up your day with periodic pauses can create a cascade of benefits.
“I define a habit as doing something that’s automatic. You don’t have to think about it, like brushing your teeth. [In a sense] all habits are bad because they restrict your ability to be present, and the present moment is where peace of mind lives,” Egoscue says. “If you think about the office, it’s very much a place of mindlessness for many. You check in, sit down, and suddenly, ‘Oh gee, where did the day go?’ If you give yourself little breaks, not only does it require you to break your habit, which makes you more present and less likely to zone out, but also you create an uptake in your metabolism.”
In other words, you generate more opportunities for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, which helps burn calories beyond what you need to function or work out. NEAT accounts for every movement you make that isn’t full-on exercise. For example, walking, gardening, or even fidgeting. And while those movements may sound trivial, the caloric burn they create can be significant. A person who incorporates more non-exercise activity into their day can burn 2,000 calories more than another person who is roughly the same size, but doesn’t move as much.
So, what does it mean to move as much as possible at work without looking like a crazy person? Periodically, try some of Egoscue’s suggestions at your desk:
- Lift your arms overhead
- Raise your arms to the sides
- Stand on one foot (maybe while on the phone)
- Walk backward or sideways (again, perhaps during a call)
- Untie and re-tie your shoelaces
None of this stuff is “exercise” as you know it. Nor does it need to be. “This doesn’t have to be all, ‘Instead of taking the elevator, I’ll take the stairs’ type stuff,” Egoscue says. “A pattern break is a great thing for our health on every level—emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical.”
Egoscue emphasizes that there are no hard-and-fast rules here. There’s no minimum number of breaks you should give yourself per day, nor a maximum amount of time you should allow to elapse while sitting.
“Just do what you can,” he says. “Change your patterns when you can. Even if it’s for three minutes, your metabolism will react to it and that’s a good thing.”