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July 1, 2022

Obesity Management for People with Desk Jobs

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image of a person working at a desk with a salad and fruit next to their computer

The Problem

Obesity has been a long-fought battle in the United States. In 2020, the CDC estimated an obesity prevalence of 41.9% (1). This prevalence will continue to increase unless we take decisive steps towards treating obesity as we would any other medical condition.

The problem of rising obesity among those with sedentary lifestyles has been known for some time. Sedentary lifestyles increase the risk of overweight/obesity, diabetes, cholesterol issues, and cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and stroke. A study analyzing data collected over 15 years shows that sedentary lifestyles led to earlier death independent of physical activity (2). A 2011 study suggested that those in sedentary occupations were sedentary for an average of 11 hours daily (3). Based on the CDC survey 2019, less than 5% of adults walked or biked to work, and only 26% reported being physically active in their leisure time (4). With the advent of remote work environments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, obesity management among those with desk jobs and sedentary lifestyles has been pushed into focus again.

The Solution

So, what does someone spending more than 50% of their waking time working at a desk do to lose weight? The solution is multifaceted and involves initiatives taken by the workplace and you, the workplace employee.

Workplace Initiatives

Vending Machines

Vending machines with easy access to empty calorie snacks like chocolates and chips are a big nuisance in offices from an obesity standpoint. When a snack is within reaching distance of your desk, it is difficult to avoid it. Such snacks are high in sugar and low in fiber and proteins, which can lead to rapid weight gain. Workplaces should prioritize making healthier snacking options available in vending machines. Opt for protein bars instead of Snickers or packets of trail mixes and nuts instead of potato chips. Sodas are a significant source of empty calories, so switching to diet sodas or sugar-free energy drinks is an alternate solution to prevent weight gain among employees.

Cafeteria Food

Most larger workplaces have cafeterias that employees frequent. Pasta, potatoes, pizzas, and fried food are staples of most restaurants. Instead of serving high carbohydrate and calorie-dense foods, providing fresher and lighter alternatives such as salads with light dressings, make-your-own sandwiches, fresh fruits, yogurts, etc., promotes limited calorie intake and better gastrointestinal health.

Encourage Physical Activity

When we spend as much time as we spend at work, it becomes our second home, and the work family becomes a second family. Promoting wellness programs amongst all employees is an excellent way of incorporating more physical activity. Team challenges such as weekly steps or squats are a fun and competitive way of promoting physical activity. Managers or team leaders can set aside 30 minutes on workdays for employees to take a quick walk or workout. This serves as a break from work to relax and rejuvenate and get you to move more. Another strategy to promote activity is providing perks such as gym memberships, discounts for athletic equipment or sought-after stores, or similar benefits. Ultimately, when the work environment promotes being physically active, it also trickles down to the employee.

Employee Initiatives

Incorporate Daily Physical Activity

Any physical activity is better than no physical activity in achieving your weight goal. Now that most workplaces have allowed employees back in the office spaces, you can integrate more steps into commuting to work. Consider walking or biking to work instead of driving if possible. On average, walking for 30 mins burns between 100-175 calories, depending on one’s speed. Biking burns between 200-700 calories per 30 minutes depending on the speed and body weight (5). Parking the car further out in the parking lot will also add to the daily step count. Taking the stairs around the workplace, instead of the elevator, is another small but meaningful activity to burn calories. Take a break every hour for a brisk walk around the workplace. This would give you a break from work and screen time and expend energy.

Get a Sit and Stand Desk

It is expected to forget that you have been sitting for hours together once you get absorbed in your work. A sit-to-stand desk is an excellent idea in this case. One typically burns two extra calories per 15 minutes of standing compared to sitting (6). So, substituting sitting with standing is a potential solution to prevent weight gain for those stuck at desks all day.

Under-desk pedal bikes and ellipticals are available online and under your work desk. They come with a wide range of pedal resistance to get a real workout if you choose to do so. Pedaling while working adds bonus calories lost throughout the day. A study of seated elliptical workstations showed that 50 minutes of pedaling results in roughly 107 additional calories burned daily (7). This can lead to a 1.1 lb. weight loss if sustained over time. While that is not much on the surface, every calorie burnt and every pound lost does matter.

Hydrate Well

Adults need at least a daily intake of 1.5 liters of water to keep from getting dehydrated. A refillable water bottle on your desk allows for consistent water intake. It helps with better concentration and decreases the urge to snack. Adequate water intake prevents overeating as you do not feel as hungry. The restroom trips also provide for getting up from your desk and moving a little.

Optimize Your Eating Habits

Snacking is quite common when at a desk job. Easy access to vending machines and cafeterias puts snacks like chips, chocolates, energy drinks, sodas, etc. within an arm’s reach. These snacks have empty calories, high sugar, fat, and low fiber. While complete abstinence may not be possible, you can choose healthier, less calorie-dense options – diet soda instead of regular soda, dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate, corn chips instead of potato chips.

Planning your snacks helps avoid the consumption of large quantities of junk food. Snacks with high fiber and protein content increase satiety and delay hunger. You can keep snacks such as nuts, prunes, popcorn, or fruits handy to munch on to avoid the urge to snack on junk food.

Scheduled meals during work hours allow for consistency in food intake and prevent you from snacking due to feeling ravenous. While the work schedule may not always allow it, we should carve out 15-20 minutes for a scheduled lunch break. Once home, the earlier you can have dinner, the better it is for your metabolism.

Exercise When You Can

Physical activity during work hours can prevent weight gain but does not contribute to too much weight loss. Furthermore, with our busy lives, it is not always possible to stick to a schedule. While setting aside time for a workout is essential, working out at the same time every day may not be possible. The crucial thing is to set aside around 30 minutes to get a workout at least four days a week. Whether it is early morning or late evening or even during a lunch break, get those 30 minutes of active time. It improves concentration, work productivity, and general well-being. The routine should be a mixture of cardiac (treadmill, running, walking, elliptical), strength training (weights, resistance bands), and muscle toning (stretches, yoga, tai-chi) exercises. Specific exercises, such as sitting leg raises, desk push-ups, and shadow boxing, can be done at the desk if one can’t get away from it for too long.

Get Your Friends and Family Involved

Working out alone can get lonely and feel like a chore. So, get a workout buddy! This could be a friend, partner, or your children. Workout buddies can encourage each other to stick to the routine when morale is low. Outdoor activities such as hiking or swimming can be a family affair, allowing parents to spend quality time with their children while having fun in nature. It is a great way to build bonds and trust. Some of my most precious memories of my grandfather are the long hikes we took every summer when I visited him. It also teaches the kids a lifelong love for the outdoors, which they can pass on to future generations, too.

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating, or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks, and fidgeting. NEAT accounts for about 4% of the daily energy expenditure. Performing household chores, walking while talking on the phone, and walking your pet all increase NEAT. Since many of these activities are essential to our lives, these are free calories burnt, which will add up to overall weight loss.

The Takeaway

Working towards weight loss is not an easy endeavor. It is even more challenging for those of us involved in sedentary jobs. Due to the link between a sedentary lifestyle and several health conditions, we must take control of our lifestyles and incorporate habits promoting weight loss. I hope this blog has given you some ideas for achieving this.

References: 1. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2017–March 2020 Prepandemic Data Files Development of Files and Prevalence Estimates for Selected Health Outcomes. Stierman B, Afful J, Carroll M, Chen T, Davy O, Fink S, Fryar C, Gu Q, Hales Craig, Hughes J, Ostchega Y, Storandt R, Akinbami L. National Center for Health Statistics (U.S.) 06/14/2021 Series : NHSR No. 158. Source : National Health Statistics Reports. URL : 2. Thorp AA, Owen N, Neuhaus M, Dunstan DW. Sedentary behaviors and subsequent health outcomes in adults a systematic review of longitudinal studies, 1996-2011. Am J Prev Med. 2011 Aug;41(2):207-15. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2011.05.004. PMID: 21767729 3. Tudor-Locke C, Leonardi C, Johnson WD, Katzmarzyk PT. Time spent in physical activity and sedentary behaviors on the working day: the American time use survey. J Occup Environ Med. 2011 Dec;53(12):1382-7. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0b013e31823c1402. PMID: 22104979 4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity.Data, Trend and Maps [online]. [accessed May 22, 2022]. URL: 5. Harvard Health Publishing. 6. The Truth Behind Standing Desks. Harvard Health Blog. 7. Carr, L.J., Maeda, H., Luther, B., Rider, P.M., Tucker, S., & Leonhard, C. (2014). Acceptability and effects of a seated active workstation during sedentary work : A proof of concept study. International Journal of Workplace Health Management, 7, 2-15.