Wellbeing For Real Life: How to do a work place workout that doesn’t feel like work

One of the commonest new year’s resolutions that I hear my friends or my patients make is to be more physically active. “I will re-join the gym/start exercise classes/get 10,000 steps a day”, I hear them declare through slightly gritted teeth, looking slightly miserable, with a facial expression that suggests they are very likely to be declaring the same thing for their 2020 new year’s resolution.

One of the commonest reasons for people’s resolutions not coming to fruition is that they feel that they just don’t have the time. Time and again, people tell me that at the end of the day when they get home from work they just don’t have the time, inclination or energy to exercise. It’s another onerous task, another chore, another thing to tick off the to-do list.

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Today is your lucky day. I am the bearer of good news! You can cancel the gym subscription, throw away the unflattering lycra and uninstall all those exercise apps (you know, the ones that you don’t ever use) from your phone. Forget all this talk about no pain and no gain. Physical activity should be a simple, pleasurable, achievable and integral part of your life. For most of us this means working it in around our work. Evidence suggests that simply being less sedentary at work gives you at least the same health benefits as being sedentary and then doing a gym workout at the end of the day. So today I give you – the Work Place Workout! It’s a list of tips to enable you to spend your day being physically active , getting the benefits of a workout without having to actually do one.

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  1. Start the day before. Give yourself a good night’s sleep, aiming for 7-8 hours. It feels much better to start the day by waking naturally than being jarred from sleep by an alarm and the glare of your mobile phone screen.
  2. Give yourself enough time. Getting up a little earlier can work wonders for your working day. Having enough time to avoid rushing, to savour your coffee, enjoy breakfast or meditate for five minutes before you go to work will put you in a great frame of mind, focussed and full of energy for the day ahead.
  3. Work out on the way to work. If you are a commuter, think about how you can use this to your advantage. Could you walk or cycle to work instead of using the car or public transport? If you are on the bus, the train or the tube, why not get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way? When you walk, walk briskly so that you can feel your heart rate increase and you feel slightly out of breath. If you can’t manage that for the whole walk to work, start with 5 or 10 minutes at this intensity and build on that over time.
  4. Walk before work. As a result of getting up a little earlier, I can get to work, turn on my computer and then take a walk into town and back before I start surgery. It’s a good time to enjoy uninterrupted peace and quiet. This can also be a good time for getting your creative juices flowing and coming up with good ideas. If there are any green spaces near your workplace, I recommend you include them as part of your route if you are able. We all feel better for spending time in nature. Doing this, I can hit 3000 steps or more before I’ve made my first phone call of the day.
  5. Live a work life of inconvenience. My job is pretty sedentary and I could just sit at my desk all day. So I will go up and down a flight or two of stairs (or a circuit of the surgery car park) in between seeing patients. It’s a standing joke in our practice. Our pharmacists see me coming up the corridor and ask how many steps I’m on for the day. If I have a prescription that needs delivering to the pharmacy or a letter for reception, I take it myself as and when I can instead of waiting for someone to collect it. Over the course of a day, it probably takes about 10-15 minutes of my time to do this. However, it does leave me feeling more alert, energetic and focussed so I think this is a good investment of my time for me and my colleagues. Think about how you can do the same in your work environment. This might be as simple as getting up from your desk to go and talk to a colleague instead of sending them an email. This is likely to lead to improved work relationships so you get a double benefit from this.
  6. Use your breaks to be physically active. I can guarantee you will feel better for getting up and moving around in your break, rather than spending it sitting at your desk where you are already spending the rest of the day. I try to go for a walk at lunchtime. We have talked in my practice about having a walking group at lunchtimes. We might not be able to do this every day, but some will work better than others. Apart from reducing the risks of inactivity (now thought to be about the same as the risks of smoking), it can also help you clear your mind and remind yourself that there is more to the world than your desk and screen-sized bit of it!
  7. Fit in a micro-bursts of physical activity. This does depend upon your physical environment to a degree, but there will be some things that everyone can do. You can use your office or workspace as a gym. When I’m triaging on the telephone as the duty doctor, I will often be using a hands free headset. This means that whilst talking to patients I can do short bursts of exercises such as lunges, squats, tricep dips or even press-ups, using my examination couch, desk or chair. You might feel a bit self conscious in an open plan office but there are probably other spaces that you could find. You can even do a short burst of star jumps or burpees which will really energise you without reducing you to a sweaty, dishevelled mess. If you work from home, you could always just do 5 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a couple of times during the day.
  8. Stay out of your chair as much as you can. Looking back over the sweep of history, the invention of the chair has probably been one of the greatest public health disasters. Clearly there are times of when we have no choice but to be sitting down and at our desk. Try taking brief breaks when you can, use a standing desk and have phone conversations or meetings standing or walking when this is appropriate. Interestingly, there is evidence to support standing/walking meetings as not only being better for your physical wellbeing but also shorter and more productive. They definitely reduce the risk of death… by Powerpoint.
  9. Get into good habits. If you can work out a plan for your working day that involves some of these approaches and manage it for at least a few weeks, it is very likely to become a habit…one that you will want to stick to as you start to feel the benefits of being more active and ultimately more effective at work.

That’s it for my workplace-based workout tips. How many of these do you already do? How many could you adopt? If you make this a part of your working life, you need never darken the doors of a gym ever again. Just think about all the money you can save on membership fees and what you might like to spend it on instead…maybe a nice standing desk?!

That’s it from me for this week. As ever, please do feel free to contribute with your comments and feedback which are most welcome. Until next time, take care of yourself!

Dr Richard Pile

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