Skip to main content

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Working in an office for 40-plus hours a week isn't exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Many white collar Americans spend too much time sitting in front of a computer monitor, chugging soda and eating take out at their desks. Bad habits can add up – and one day, all of a sudden, the fat has jiggled a tire shape around your waist, your back creaks like a tired ship and your eyes are little red squints.

The good news: you can do something about it. Below, we go over some of the most common workplace-induced ailments and ways to avoid them.

Stop sitting so much

You're probably aware that sitting too much contributes to back pain and a stretching waistline. But according to mounting scientific data, prolonged sitting can lead to a host of other problems you might not know about.

"Chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, back pain and obesity" are all health risks associated with extensive sitting, says Nicolaas Pronk, Ph.D., who has authored an extensive body of work on healthy and unhealthy behavior in the workplace.

And how much sitting is too much sitting?

"Negative consequences already show up after one hour of sitting time - such as back pain - but when people sit for four to six hours per day, negative health issues start to accumulate," says Pronk. When you combine the most common times people sit – on the commute, at the desk and in front of the TV – you can easily get up to and over that amount. So it helps to get up from the desk every so often.

While you can't walk around the office all day, and your desk probably isn't a standing one, there are ways to fit in some more standing time. For example:

  • Make a habit to stand up every half hour, even if only for a couple minutes. Grab a coffee or water, mosey over to the printer, or just stand up to stretch your legs.
  • If you take a conference call, stand up or pace around rather than sit.
  • If possible, try setting up a "walking meeting with another person or standing meetings when in a group," says Pronk.
  • Team up with a coworker and go on a short walk in the afternoons.
  • Stretch in the morning and at work. If possible, "try to make the stretches specific to the work the team is involved in," says Pronk.

Keep your hands strong

Your hands do a lot of repetitive movements throughout the workday. Hours of keyboard use could leave you with cramped joints or sore wrists. While studies haven't shown typing as a cause of carpal tunnel, you can still get sore fingers and wrists, with tendinitis as one of the worst-case scenarios.

"Good preventive measures for repetitive trauma is to include stretching and strengthening exercise for those joints affected," says Pronk.

Many wrist stretches can be done at the desk, but you can also take this opportunity to stand up and do a few. A few hand exercises found at WebMD include:

  • Make a fist for up to a minute, then open your palm wide, splaying your fingers
  • Squeeze a stress relief ball
  • Place your hand palm-down on your desk, then raise and lower your fingers

Stop staring at your monitor so much

According to the Vision Council's latest report on digital eyestrain, about 70% of U.S. adults experience eyestrain on a daily basis – mostly from zombie-like stares into computer screens, big and small, hour after hour every day – but half don't take any steps to cut down on the strain. Of about 7,000 people polled for the Vision Council's report, 28% reported spending more than 10 hours a day in front of digital devices, including television, which apparently also contributes to eyestrain.

So what can you do?

The Vision Council, which calls itself the "global voice" for eyewear industry manufacturers on its website, has some tips.

  • Use the 20/20/20 rule: Look away from the screen every 20 minutes at something about 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
  • Zoom in on webpages to increase text size
  • Make your workstation comfortable and ergonomic by adjusting lighting, seat and monitor positions.

If your computer monitor is making your eyes feel like coals from its almost halogen glow, try out a free app like f.lux, which adjusts your monitor to mimic the sun in the daytime and indoor lighting during the night. And if you can get past how they look, consider buying a pair computer glasses.

Fix bad workweek eating habits

The dreaded thing that spawns the mother of all New Year resolutions, weight gain can sneak up on you at the office faster than you can say, "I didn't mean to eat the whole thing." Start by packing some greens from home.

"Unless you have a fabulous cafeteria that serves healthy options, like salads, soups, grilled meats or sandwiches with whole grain breads, the best bet to lose weight is to pack your own lunch," says Dr. Dyan Hes, a board member of the American Board of Obesity Medicine and medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City. "When you pack a lunch you can choose healthier foods and control the portion size."

Here are a few other tips from Hes:

  • Pack healthy snacks to avoid hunting down salty snacks from the vending machine
  • Drink lots of water throughout the day
  • Don't eat at your desk. "This is the same reason why people who eat in front of the television gain more weight. Their meals last for much longer than if they sat at a table with the TV off, finished the meal, and then went to watch TV," says Hes.
  • Control portion sizes – avoid takeout

Avoid bacteria

Short-term problems like stomach bugs can interrupt your regular routine. Bacteria, which can cause anything from a mildly upset stomach to a serious case of e.coli, may not be 100% possible to avoid, but you can take preventative steps. About 48 million – one in six – Americans get sick from a foodborne illness every year, reports the Center for Disease Control. Severe cases can lead to hospitalization – which happens to about 128,000 people per year.

Minimize your risk of getting a stomach bug or flu virus by making an effort to follow the tips below.

  • While you don't need to wipe down everything with an anti-bacterial cleanser, make a conscious effort to wash your hands throughout the day, like after going to the bathroom and before and after eating.
  • Get some LCD screen wipes to clean off your smartphone: the British watchdog group Which? found the dirtiest smartphone to be seven times dirtier than the dirtiest toilet after researching the hygiene of tablets, keyboards, smartphones and toilets.
  • Store food properly, such as in the fridge, as soon as you get to work, and re-heat items thoroughly to minimize colonizing bacteria. The FDA says to reheat leftovers to about 165 degrees, and bring leftovers like gravy and sauces to a boil.
  • When using a microwave to heat food, check for cold spots – those areas can harbor bacteria. Mix the food or rotate its tray and heat until there are no cold spots.
  • Keep up to date with vaccinations

If you do get sick, do not take antibiotics without first consulting a doctor. Taking unnecessary antibiotics could lead to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in the future, according to the CDC. And no one wants to be infected by our oncoming antibiotic-resistant bacterial overlords.

--Written by Craig Donofrio for MainStreet