6 Legit Ways to Move More During Work

How to avoid death by sitting.

Say goodbye to coffee shops or conference rooms and hello to the pavement. Moving while working? Now that’s the way to get things done.

Ditch Your Chair

Unbroken hours spent seated in a chair hurt our bodies in a way that even regular visits to the gym or a 5K weekend run can’t fix. One of the earliest studies to investigate the risks of “sitting disease” occurred in the 1940s, when a Scottish epidemiologist discovered conductors were at lower risk for coronary heart disease than their bus-driving colleagues. Morris and his team found similar results when they expanded the study and compared postal delivery workers to sedentary postal clerks.

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Since Morris’ time, more and more research links sitting for uninterrupted periods of time—the kind of sitting we experience at work and while commuting—with two times greater risk of diabetes, a 90 percent greater risk of cardiovascular disease, and a 49 percent greater risk of death, among other conditions and diseases. It’s this research that drives the media buzz about how our jobs are killing us.

The good news is that we have choices when it comes to death by chair. To quote Dr. James Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist credited with developing the concept of the treadmill desk: “There are solutions to chair-associated ill health that range from population-wide gym attendance, pharmacological administration, or genetic manipulation. Alternatively, people could get up." 

The Benefits of Moving at Work

So how does a person get up at work? It may sound like a funny question, but if you’ve ever found yourself sitting at your desk for hours on end, you know not to laugh.

Some people work for companies that willingly invest in office equipment that gets employees moving, such as treadmill desks or adjustable-height desks. If you’re not one of them, then you’ll have to move yourself. You can perform exercises at your desk or do bodyweight exercises by the copy machine, in the restroom, or in your office (provided you’re lucky enough to have your own). But one of the easiest (and least sweaty) ways to move more at work is to start walking while meeting.

Regardless of how you choose to do it, studies show there are numerous benefits to moving at work. Physical activity at work can help employees in the following ways:

  • Boost creativity. A recent Stanford study found that simply going for a walk (outside or on the treadmill) can get our creative juices moving—and help them stay that way. In fact, study participants had twice as many creative responses after a jaunt as a person who remained seated.
  • Improve focus and retention. The absolute best way to move? Get outside. When people venture outdoors into a forested area or an arboretum, or simply look at scenes of nature, their bodies relax and their memories and attention improve.
  • Meet activity goals. NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, is the energy we expend for all activities not associated with eating, sleeping or gut-busting exercise. Even though they may not require much effort, these little bits of movement (like walking) can help us meet daily and weekly physical activity guidelines in a manageable way.
  • Shape work culture. “A movement must be public,” pronounced Derek Sivers in his superb TED talk, How to Start a Movement. When one person does something, he or she may be declared a “lone nut”—but when two or three join—then you have a leader and a movement. Walking meetings or group fitness outings make movement a true priority and help to establish a work culture that support employees’ healthy choices.

Your Action Plan

Convinced that it’s time to ditch the seat and move more during work? Take the simple steps below to get started.

1. Find a path. Before you set off on your first walking meeting, build your route map and identify options of varying lengths and direction. You’ll want walking routes that are safe, not too noisy, and easily accessible from the office without an additional commute.

2. Walk by yourself. There’s no hard-and-fast rule that a walking meeting needs to be a group activity. When you need to mull something over or come up with fresh ideas, get out of your head and head outside. If available time or company rules restrict walking outside, walking the perimeter of a factory or office floor is an excellent stand-in.

3. Invite appointments to walk instead of having a seated meeting. In his famous laws of motion, Newton found that an object at rest will remain at rest unless an external force acts upon it. Be that external force, and start inviting appointments to walk and talk instead of meeting on seats. You may experience a few quizzical looks at first (remember our “lone nut”), but plenty will soon become walking meeting devotees.

4. Set walking meetings up for success. There’s no telling whether your first overtures to turn traditional meetings into walking ones will be met positively. But there are ways to make your efforts, and the meetings themselves, more successful:

  • Let your walking partners know about the idea in advance so they can best prepare themselves.
  • Consider what the other person is wearing and modify the walk’s length and path accordingly (e.g. If your walking partner is wearing high heels, steer clear of bumpy sidewalks).
  • Keep the group size small, and vary its size depending on the topic at hand. If the plan is to brainstorm, for example, consider breaking the larger group into small subgroups before you set out walking. Then each subgroup can generate ideas to share with the whole once everyone has returned to the office.
  • Be mindful of when walking meetings don’t make sense (but check whether this is outmoded thinking first). While difficult performance conversations could be well-served by a real breath of fresh air, for example, your company’s human resources policy might prefer you stay indoors.

5. Find a sponsor to champion walking meetings. Change happens within an organization when a visible and influential leader drives it. To that end, seek out an influential person within your company (a manager, a beloved colleague, even the CEO if they’re accessible and you feel comfortable) and invite him or her to a walking meeting. Then slip all the research cited in this article into your conversation. If they still need some convincing, let them know that great thinkers like Aristotle and Freud swore by them, today’s technology and political leaders advance their agendas through them, and numerous companies are promoting group activity as a means of increasing productivity, ramping up collaboration, and lowering health-related risks and costs. By the end of the walk, it’s likely they’ll be at least a little more receptive to making movement an organization-wide priority.

6. Sneak it in. At certain jobs and organizations, it’s simply not possible to move while meeting (or even to leave your station at all). That doesn’t mean all is lost. The key takeaway is that any type of movement counts. Try to exercise at your desk, take the long way to the break, lunch, or rest room, and squeeze in some form of movement before and after work. If desperate times call for desperate measures on the job, simply fidget (pace while you're on the phone, fiddle with a pen while you're talking, etc.); you'll still be moving more than you otherwise would. With a little creativity, it’s possible to find subtle ways to sneak in a little wiggle or a walk on the job.

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