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Avoiding Occupational Health Hazards: Tips to manage the sedentary, stressful job

The following is adapted from an article I published in for radiologists who have very sedentary, stressful jobs. Although not writtent in the "blog friendly" style, there are great tips for anyone is that situation to manage better at work.

If "sitting is the new smoking" and stress is a significant contributor to disease, then the typical desk worker today faces significant occupational hazards. Studies have clearly demonstrated that how we live our lives on a daily basis is a major contributor to disease. As the workplace has shifted to a more sedentary way of life with increasing demands and stress, there are many steps we can take to care for ourselves properly. Here are some tips to improve your well-being at the workplace.


Prolonged sitting has been tied to increased mortality and multiple chronic diseases including cancer, depression, diabetes, obesity and back pain. (1, 2, 3) Whether you reach the physical activity guidelines for adult Americans of 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity (or 75 minutes vigorous) and 2 or more days a week of strength training or not, excessive sitting is a separate risk factor for disease. The days of sprinting two flights of stairs to talk with a colleague or going out for a walk during lunch are long gone for most. With increasing workload and productivity metrics, eating lunch in front of our computer screens and long conference calls, many of us have physical activity during work limited to a few bathroom breaks. However, the following tips incorporate movement into the day to break up the metabolic changes that occur during sustained inactivity:

1. Stand up as often as you can. As obvious as it may seem, many of us simply need to be more conscious of the importance of movement.

2. Enlist the aid of your mobile device. There are many apps that offer desk workouts, hourly reminder alarms and ways to track your fitness. Some are quite subtle and won’t draw attention. For example, try out the free version of “7” and “Desk workout”. The movements don’t need to be big, just enough to wake your body out of a metabolic “slumber” during prolonged sitting.

3. Consider an adjustable height desk or a treadmill desk. These desks can be one of the best ways to build in movement during your day and the costs of have come down considerably. While some employers may have restrictions, they are certainly ideal for home use. For example, Human Solutions has a basic model of the UPLIFT 900 Sit-stand desk for $699.

4. Turn your seat into a mini work out. Ball chairs or the less obtrusive balance disc cushions can offer you core strengthening while sitting. These can easily be found, along with reviews, on

5. Stand up when on the telephone. A good reminder is the phone ringer. If feasible, stand while talking to your consults.

6. Take movement breaks whenever possible. While a quick Internet break to check the latest news report is tempting, try to build in activities that require more than a mouse click.


Health implications from chronic stress are known to affect the immune system, CNS function, cardiovascular function, and metabolism. Headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression and anxiety have all been linked to stress. The following are tips to minimize your experience of stress or improve how you react to stress throughout the workday:

1. Take slow, deep breaths. Deep breathing can indirectly stimulate the Vagus nerve and engage the parasympathetic nervous system to help calm you down. There are many breathing techniques for stress management, which can be learned on the Internet, at a local yoga studio or meditation center or from a book.

2. Shift your emotions. If your brain tends to ruminate or you can’t seem to shake a looming dark cloud, check out information on Positive Psychology. Websites such as from University of Pennsylvania is an excellent resource. Talk reassuringly to yourself when you realize you are locked in a stressful frame of mind: “The work will get done”. “All will be okay”. Also, putting a “container” around work situations can help keep emotions from infiltrating other aspects of your life.

3. Listen to calming music. Portable speakers for your mobile device are easy to find. Or, continuous online streaming of your favorite music can be obtained through sites like Amazon Prime Music and Groove Shark.

4. Evoke the Relaxation Response on a regular basis. While stress elicits the fight or flight response, we can counter-act the physiologic changes by intentionally triggering what Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard University termed decades ago as the “Relaxation Response”. (4) Ways to elicit the Relaxation Response include Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques such as meditation, tai chi, yoga and progressive muscle relaxation, repetitive prayer, or other activities that include repetition of a sound, word or movement while passively setting aside everyday thoughts. Just ten minutes a day can have significant effects on how you feel and manage stress.

5. Exercise outside of work. Regular exercise in your free time can help you manage stress better during the workday. In addition, there are the added benefits of reduced obesity, CV disease, certain cancers, metabolic syndrome, anxiety and depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s and stroke.(5)

6. Take action if you are in an undesirable work situation. Although finding a new job may take time, start taking whatever action you can and know that nothing lasts forever.

7. Separate yourself from the gossip chain. If you are in a group currently in transition, continuous informal discussion of what may come to pass can be extremely stressful. If the rumors are getting to you, take a break and don’t take part in the conversation.

Currently, it is estimated that approximately 80% of chronic disease is attributable to lifestyle factors.(6) Researchers have discovered that the behavior choices we make during the workday can actually turn on or turn off genes (Epigenetics) which contribute to health or illness. We have much more power to affect the quality of our own lives than previously thought. Although the typical scenario of a demanding, sedentary job may be less than ideal for wellness, there are many steps we can take to ensure our own health and vitality. Here's to good health...

1. Neville Owen, Geneviève N Healy, Charles E. Matthews, and David W. Dunstan. Too Much Sitting: The Population-Health Science of Sedentary Behavior. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. Jul 2010; 38(3): 105–113.

2. David W. Dunstan Bethany Howard, Genevieve N. Healy, Neville Owen. Too much sitting – A health hazard. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. Sept 2012. Volume 97, Issue 3, Pg 368-376.

3. Is Sitting a Lethal Activity? James Vlahos New York Times. April 14, 2011. Interview with Dr. JA Levine, researcher at Mayo Clinic.


5. EIM and Health

6. Ford et al. Potsdam Study. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(15):1355-1362

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