Combating the Effects of a Sedentary Career

Having an active hobby, like surfing, helps to offset the negative effects of sitting in front of a computer for long hours. Image: David Roscoe

During my years as a full-time fitness professional I always took pride in my physical health, and maybe even took it for granted a little. I was on my feet for most of the day, teaching fitness classes and instructing personal training clients. Even before then my summer job while at university was active; I led multiple daily hikes as a nature interpreter for Alberta Environment. I was young, fit – and I didn’t have a sedentary job. There were a lot of things I didn’t understand, that I didn’t have a firsthand grasp of, until I started sitting at a computer for the bulk of my work day.

I’ve always felt rather strong and invincible, and with a base of good genes, an active lifestyle, and a physical job, I didn’t get all of the complaints from my sedentary peers. I worked long, hard hours too. What was the problem? But I get it now. The eye strain, the hunched shoulders, the lower back fatigue, the tight hip flexors: painful reminders that the human body is absolutely not meant to sit all day, every day.

Even though it’s been a bit of a shock to feel weakness in the body I figured would always be strong, I feel blessed to now have inside reconnaissance to better help me help others.

There have been a few people that have added insight to the conundrum of why my body has disagreed with my gusto for taking on too much and being perpetually desk bound.

Take time to stretch and sweat every day

First on the list of helpful people is my wonderful husband. He never fails to have great advice, and I always trust that he’ll shed light on any predicament I come across. He's been a technical artist in the film industry for the past ten years – having worked on The Thing, Legend of the Guardians, The Wild, and more – which means he has spent a staggering amount of time in front of a computer. I’m the kind of person that jumps out of bed and switches off my alarm half way through the first beep – the exact opposite of my husband who could probably set a world record for lingering in bed. I used to wonder what the heck he was doing but was too busy getting my day started to notice. Well, now I know.

Just like a cat, he spends a considerable amount of time stretching and limbering up before grudgingly climbing out of bed. Smart. The other thing he does without fail is go to the gym nearly every day at lunch. He says it’s a great way to break up an inactive work day and it helps to keep his body in tune and his mind alert. I’ve adopted these habits and try to start my day with some stretching and take a midday walk with my dog, or head to the gym if I haven’t already done so first thing in the morning. And what a difference it makes to do some vigorous physical activity – or at least enough of something to break a sweat. Read more about my fit tip, “sweat once a day”, here.

Build regular movement breaks into your daily routine

Even though a morning stretch and midday break are a great start to combating the effects of a sedentary career, it’s just not enough to offset sitting all day. I recently signed up for the Publication Coach newsletter, a great writing newsletter created by Daphne Gray-Grant with tips on time management, productivity, and, of course, writing. I’ve been using a trick from a recent article, How to get more writing done, which involves using a timer to measure periods of time where you focus on one task to the exclusion of all others. For example, researching and taking notes on a subject you’re going to write about after closing your email, turning off your phone, and removing any other distractions. This idea is based on the Pomodoro technique, and involves working in 25-minute bursts followed by 5-minute breaks. Gray-Grant recommends doing little exercises during the breaks and it’s definitely helped to have a little stretch multiple times throughout the day.

Acquire physically active hobbies

Our best friends live in Whistler and are one of those irritatingly fit couples who just can’t seem to sit still. It makes it much less irritating, and actually quite inspiring, that they are joyful, positive and full of boundless energy. And their active lifestyle has definitely rubbed off on us. They welcomed my husband and I onto their soccer and volleyball teams when we first met, and they continue to be sports that we enjoy today. While I spent the past winter drinking hot chocolate spiked with fireball whiskey, they collectively hit the slopes over 120 times. When I am wrapping up my workday with a glass of Merlot, I’ll get a text saying they’re about to embark on a “little” 50 kilometre bike ride or 20 kilometre run.

My brother is another example of someone with itchy feet. He is a fish biologist and although he spends a fair bit of time in the field, and therefore being active, he also spends a lot of time at a desk, sorting through data, researching, and writing. But in his off-time you'd be hard pressed to find him sitting still. In the winter months he spends as much time in the mountains, telemark skiing, as he possibly can and in the summer he's either surfing, kayaking, hiking, biking, or skateboarding. And when it's not possible for him to be doing one of those things he's concocting inventive exercises that he can do in the meantime to become better at those things.

And the apple didn’t fall far from the trees because my parents, both avid walkers, walk me within an inch of my life every time we get together. Last time my parents visited me in Vancouver a morning walk turned into an entire day of in-depth walking tours of Yaletown, Gastown, Downtown, and the West End. I drew the line at Stanley Park and took a bus home.

So if you’re feeling the sedentary blues like I have lately, try starting your day with a stretch, taking time out to sweat, building in mini movements breaks, and taking on active hobbies in your spare time.