Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: I never gained the infamous "freshman 15" while I was in college. But now I've graduated and am behind a desk for nine hours a day for my new job. I'm not only putting on the pounds, I feel generally lousy. Is this just adjusting to working life, or is sitting so much bad for you?

Dear Reader: Making the switch from the freeform life of a college student to the strictures and structure of a full-time job can indeed be a challenge. It's quite possible that some of what you're feeling is a result of this shift in lifestyle. However, your question zeros in on an important element of the modern workplace, and one that numerous studies have identified as a genuine health hazard. That is, the fact that so many of us spend the majority of our days sitting. To quote more than a few of the headlines we've seen on the topic -- sitting may be the new smoking.

Our bodies are built for movement. Every one of our systems -- lungs, circulatory, lymphatic, skeletal and muscular -- benefits from regular activity. Even improved mood and memory have been linked to physical fitness. Yet the default of our modern world has become inactivity, whether it's in cars, at desks, on couches or seated in front of screens. As more and more of us began to spend our lives sitting down, researchers examined the consequences. The results have been anything but reassuring. Numerous studies have now linked those long hours of sitting to an increased risk of a number of health threats, including diabetes, some cancers and heart disease.

An intriguing new study from the University of Illinois-Chicago suggests a new way forward for desk-based workers. Researchers evaluated the merits of three different types of work stations. One was the desk-and-chair combo we're all too familiar with. One was the standing desk, which has become a common sight in many workplaces. And one was a seated desk that had been outfitted with a mobile foot rest. The device, which goes by the brand name HOVR, is basically a leg swing that allows the seated person to stay in motion.

According to the study, individuals who used the mobile foot rest burned 17 percent more calories than did those who sat still. Interestingly, the foot rest group also used 7 percent more calories than people at standing desks. Admittedly, it's a modest step forward (sorry), but the point we took from the study is that even small interventions can be beneficial.

Whether the option of a foot swing is in your future, you can make some changes to how you spend your work day. Stand up and stretch every 10 or 15 minutes. Take short walks around the office. As much as possible, add motions that flex and stretch your legs, arms and trunk muscles. And it wouldn't hurt to ask whether your workplace offers any alternatives to the seated desk.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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