Get up! 10 ways to cure ‘sitting disease’

employees exercisingEven if your organization encourages employees to quit smoking, participate in health assessments and have screening tests like mammograms and colonoscopies, you might not be following the age-old Golden Rule of health care: First, do no harm.

A number of recent studies confirm that working makes people fat, especially if their jobs call for them to sit for long periods, skip meals or deal with stress.

Work-related weight gain is so prevalent, in fact, that scientists refer to the syndrome as “sitting disease.” Research shows that a sedentary workday—especially a long one—can lead to everything from aches and pains to high blood pressure, heart disease and even cancer.

The problem, according to research reported in the American Journal of Physiology: Prolonged pressure on a body part that is in a resting position for too long causes it to produce more fat.

It’s a problem that’s getting worse. Americans sit longer and exercise less than in years past. Evidence: 44% of workers in a new survey by said they’ve gained weight at their current jobs.

Difficult People D

That’s not good for employees—or for your organization’s health care bottom line. The good news: Because employed adults spend a quarter of their lives at work, businesses that promote healthy eating and exercise can have a huge impact on their workers’ weight and overall health.

Here are 10 ways your organization can help its employees stave off sitting-induced, on-the-job weight gain.

1. Require employees to get off their duffs during breaks. Too often, employees use break time to check personal email, go shopping online or conduct other personal business. Shoo them away from their desks for those 15 minutes so they at least have to walk to a break room to do it.

Bonus: Enforced breaks give em­­ployees a chance to catch their breath when they’re working under deadline pressure. A short break will leave a stressed-out employee in a better frame of mind to push through during crunch times.

2. Prohibit employees from eating at their desks. Some desktop diners take care of personal projects, others continue working. But if they’re not allowed to have food at their work­stations, they may use meal time to eat and then do something else, like take a walk. An employee who stands up and walks around for just 10 minutes during lunchtime will feel more energized for the next two hours than someone who sits at his or her desk, taking bites between keystrokes.

Bonus: Fewer crumb-fouled keyboards.

3. Discourage employees from skipping lunch breaks just so they can leave early at the end of the day. Blood sugar levels rise in people who don’t eat every four or five hours, so lunch is an important meal.

Bonus: You’ll stay on the right side of the law if your state requires a 30-minute lunch break for full-time employees.

4. Organize quick exercise breaks. A group stretch not only encourages people to move, it makes it OK be­­cause everyone is bending and reaching at the same time.

Bonus: Exercise can brighten the mood in the office and build cama­­raderie among co-workers.

5. Encourage employees to stand more often—for example, every time they answer the phone. Suggest taking a walk when talking about work and stretching while waiting at the copier.

Bonus: Employees on the move tend to interact more with co-workers face-to-face instead of via email.

6. Teach good nutrition. Host a brown-bag seminar on how to pack healthy lunches and resist overeating during business lunches at restaurants. In the survey, more than half of employees said they eat out at work at least once a week.

Bonus: Lessons in how to say “no” to high-calorie menu items and tempting desserts will carry over into the employees’ before- and after-work meals as well, leading them to make healthier choices at every meal.

7. Make employees work for their snacks. Move vending machines to far-off corners of the workplace. Stock them with healthy snacks like yogurt, nuts and fruit instead of chips and cookies so junk-food junkies don’t have easy access to fattening, empty calories.

If you offer free snacks, fill the goodie bowls only with fruit.

Bonus: Hungry employees will continue to buy what’s convenient, even if it’s not salty or sugary. Your healthy snack strategy can lead them to add more fruits and high-fiber foods to their diets—a good first step toward weight loss.

8. Limit workplace celebrations. If someone brings a cake to work every time a co-worker has a birthday, the staff will eat a lot of cake.

Consider organizing one birthday party—with one cake—each month, to celebrate all of that month’s birthdays at once. Discourage em­­ployees from bringing in sweets for the office at other times.

Bonus: Cutting down on birthday cakes means far fewer off-key renditions of “Happy Birthday.” Remem­­ber the cringe-worthy birthday cake scene in the movie “Office Space”? Yeah, the less of that, the ­better.

9. Create group weight-loss challenges. Weight gain and weight loss can both be contagious.

Research from Harvard and the University of California San Diego suggests that when someone suddenly gains a lot of weight, their friends often do, too.

Some scientists believe that the opposite is also true—that when people drop pounds, their friends become more likely to lose weight, too.

That means group interventions—like weight-loss contests and peer support groups—can improve health for more than one person at a time.

Bonus: Participants in your challenge can bond with the lunchtime walks we advocated in Tip No. 2.

10. Constantly publicize your wellness programs. It’s not enough to announce a new gym subsidy when you introduce it.

Keep the information top-of-mind with employees so they remember it when they’re ready to do something about their health.

The survey found that while 29% of ­employers offer gym passes, onsite workout rooms or other similar wellness benefits, only 10% of their employees take advantage of them.

Bonus: The more employees who partake of wellness benefits—and enjoy better health and lower medical bills because of them—the better the chances that your organization’s number-crunchers will embrace rather than cut wellness programs.

Who’s got the most to lose? America’s top 10 weightiest jobs

A CareerBuilder survey identified 10 professions that seem to invite weight gain, usually because of prolonged ­sitting, on-the-job stress or frequent, high-calorie working lunches:

  • Travel agent
  • Attorney/judge
  • Social worker
  • Teacher
  • Artist/designer/architect
  • Administrative assistant
  • Physician
  • Police/firefighter
  • Marketing/public relations professional
  • Information technology professional

Source: survey, June 2012