The Medical Minute: Creative ways to stay fit in the workplace

Carpal tunnel syndrome.

Low back pain.

Eye strain and headaches.

These varied ailments may appear to be symptoms of a rare multi-system disease. However, they are in fact side effects of one of the unavoidable aspects of modern life for many Americans: working in an office or other sedentary setting.

In this edition of the Medical Minute, exercise physiologist Jonelle Faust of Penn State Hershey University Fitness Center weighs in on different ways that office workers can approach staying fit while working, improve their productivity, and even relieve some of the discomfort associated with office work.

“In today’s society there’s so much emphasis on working and getting the job done, that employees are finding that they’re spending so much time at work that they neglect being active,” said Faust. “With activity, the work environment will improve and morale is going to increase – people are going to be happier, they’re going to be more excited and healthier.”

One creative way to incorporate workplace fitness into the environment is to perform small exercises during down time – this can include stretching while at the copy machine, raising small dumbbells while only one arm is occupied, or using a desk or wall to do push-up repetitions.

Faust noted the growing number of workplaces that are incorporating lunchtime workouts, and the fact that many employers are now encouraging their employees to go and take fitness classes.

“One group of people I worked with did a really cool thing - they actually took a vacant room and set up a circuit training workshop, with a timer and little stations,” she said. “They were just walking up and down stairs, doing sit-ups or wall push-ups, but they were able to do a half-hour workout that way.”

Some of Faust’s other suggestions require even less effort, with employees making simple changes to their daily work routines. This could include taking breaks to stretch or walk around the office, rest their eyes and wrists, and de-stress. Desk chairs can be traded for a stability ball; even in 30-minute increments, this will strengthen the core and back muscles to reduce pain. Another tip is to take the stairs instead of the elevator, or walking instead of driving between buildings for a brief burst of cardio.

She also recommends that employees recruit a workout buddy to keep themselves accountable to get their exercise on certain days.

“Keep a Post-It note in your office that will remind you of which days you do your walk around the office at lunchtime,” said Faust. “Pedometers are a great thing as well, challenge yourself each week to get so many steps or try to increase how many steps you’re doing - anything to get you up and moving.”

In today's world where everyone seems to be putting in more hours at the office, it’s easy to use the excuse "I have no time to exercise,” and put physical fitness on the back burner. But Faust says incorporating activity into your work day can also be easy: Step away from that desk, get out of the desk chair, stretch, flex, and hydrate. You won't be as tired at work, running out of energy halfway through the day, and won't need the coffee fix, she says. You may reap the benefits of fewer muscle strains and pains and headaches. And, she adds, you will have the personal pride that you are improving your overall health and well-being.

For more tips and demonstrations of simple ways to help you stay fit during the work day, check out this video on the Penn State Hershey YouTube page, at http://goo.gl/nvMIF.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

Up next week: Some simple tips for helping combat the growing epidemic that is childhood obesity.

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Last Updated August 31, 2012