by Beth Shepard
12 Ways to Boost Your Energy Expenditure at Work
- Pace when you’re on the phone, in a meeting, or on a Web conference.
- Fidget and shift in your seat or stand during a meeting.
- Take the stairs, skip the elevator.
- Get up and stretch or walk throughout the day.
- Take every opportunity to stand instead of sit.
- Shift your weight from side to side or rock from toes to heels while waiting in line.
- Bypass interoffice mail to personally deliver a document.
- Make your next one-on-one a walking meeting.
- Request a workstation that allows you to stand — or walk on a treadmill — while you work.
- Wear a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day.
- Get your foot pain checked out by a medical professional.
- Propose an increase in the number of casual days.
Promoting physical activity in the workplace is becoming a popular strategy in the scramble to boost worker well-being and contain health care costs in developed nations. The risks of sedentary living are well-documented, and public health messages prod everyone to move more — but what’s the solution when your job keeps you seated all day?
A Modern-Day Dilemma
Working up a sweat was just part of earning a day’s wages early in the 20th century, when farms across the country employed 41% of all U.S. workers. Over the years, most of the physical labor involved in farming has been replaced by machinery and technology designed to increase productivity. By 2002, farms employed only 1.9% of the American workforce.
Many modern jobs require little or no physical activity, and — not surprisingly — today’s workers are heavier than ever, with 66% of the U.S. workforce overweight. There are plenty of professions — like carpentry and health care— that still involve physical activity, but more and more working adults sit all day at work, at home, and while commuting.
Contemporary living just doesn’t demand the same energy output as it did in the past. In fact, studies show that modern machinery conserves about 111 calories per day, per person. It’s no coincidence that sales of labor-saving devices over the last several decades parallel the rates of obesity in the United States. And data from food intake studies shows that an increase in calorie intake alone can’t account for the obesity epidemic.
The NEAT Factor
A significant decrease in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the most likely culprit. Any physical activity that isn’t structured, purposeful exercise is NEAT — including foot-jiggling, standing, or even gum-chewing. Because it’s physical activity, it burns calories — which really add up over the course of a day. Studies show that NEAT can account for anywhere from 15 percent to over 50 percent of daily energy expenditure —and that could mean a difference of up to 2000 calories per day between two people of similar sizes. In contrast, a 30-minute walk burns about 200 calories, depending on individual size and pace. The impact of NEAT on daily energy expenditure is far greater than that of planned exercise.
The work environment has a strong influence on whether or not personnel receive extra pounds with their paychecks. Researchers found that the bulk of the variation in NEAT is accounted for by occupation. It makes sense — if you’re on your feet all day at work, you’re burning a lot of calories—if you sit all day, your calorie output is much lower.
Here’s the good news — even if you’re in front of a screen all day, there are specific strategies you can use to boost your daily energy expenditure and ward off weight gain. According to Mayo Clinic researcher and NEAT expert James A. Levine, MD, PhD, “even minor changes in physical activity throughout the day can increase daily energy expenditure by 20%.”
Look for opportunities to fidget, walk, and otherwise move your body during the work day. With practice, it’ll get easier. Check out the sidebar for specific strategies.
Recent research has linked prolonged sitting with increased risk for metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes — independent of time spent on recreational exercise.
The average NEAT deficit amounts to 2.5 hours of standing and moving around each day. And studies show that obese individuals are seated for about 2.75 hours (164 minutes) more than lean individuals. Shifting from a pattern of sitting to a pattern of standing and moving could result in substantial weight loss over time.
Consistently heading out for a vigorous bike ride after work is clearly beneficial. Keep in mind, however, that if you spend most of your day sitting, your risk of chronic disease goes up, despite your workout schedule. Should you stop exercising? Absolutely not — but finding ways to reduce your sitting time and boost your NEAT during the day is just as — and maybe more — important when it comes to decreasing health risks. Find ways to include both NEAT activities and structured vigorous exercise as a part of your daily life.
Treat Your Feet
Foot pain can make even walking to the water cooler an exercise in misery. If your feet are bothering you, talk to your health care provider. A change in shoe style, using off-the-shelf or custom orthotics — or medical treatment — could relieve your pain and make moving around more comfortable — and more likely.
A 2004 ACE-commissioned study found that physical activity increased by 8% when workers dressed in business casual clothing vs. traditional business clothing. That amounts to 25 calories a day in additional energy expenditure — enough to offset the typical adult weight gain of about two pounds a year if casual clothing is worn to work throughout the year.
Becoming more physically active during your work day will take effort —but it’s a powerful tool — and a sustainable step in the right direction — towards a better body weight, reduced health risks, and feeling terrific all over.
American Council on Exercise, ACE Study Finds Fitness Benefits of Wearing Casual Clothing to Work, Casual And Comfortable Clothing Workdays Promote Increased Physical Activity, American Council on Exercise Press Releases, retrieved 6/23/2010 from http://www.acefitness.org/pressroom/339/ace-study-finds-fitness-benefits-of-wearing-casual/
Dimitri C, Effland A, Conklin N, The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, Electronic Information Bulletin Number 3, June 2005, U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Retrieved 6/23/10 from http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib3/eib3.htm
Hamilton M, Hamilton D, Zoleric T, Diabetes November 2007 vol. 56 no. 11 2655-2667 http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/56/11/2655.long
Levine, J, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, Mayo Clinic Research, 2010, http://mayoresearch.mayo.edu/levine_lab/about.cfm
Levine J, Vander Weg M, Hill J, Klesges, R, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: The Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon of Societal Weight Gain, Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 2006;26;729-736 http://atvb.ahajournals.org/cgi/reprint/26/4/729