Obesity Management for People with Desk Jobs

Published Date: July 1, 2022

healthy food on desk next to computer screen

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 strong 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. According to a study that analyzes data collected over 15 years, 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 a day (3). Based on the CDC survey from 2019, less than 5% of adults walked or biked to work and only 26% of adults reported being physically active in their leisure time (4). With the advent of remote work environments in the midst of 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 very quick 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 big source of empty calories so switching to diet sodas or sugar-free energy drinks is an alternate solution to prevent weight gain amongst employees.

Cafeteria Food

Most larger workplaces have cafeterias that are frequented by employees. Pasta, potatoes, pizzas, and fried food are staples of most cafeterias. Instead of serving such 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 spending 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 as a whole is a great 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 keep aside 30 mins on workdays for employees to go for 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 trickles down to the employee also.

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 when moving around the workplace, instead of the elevator, is another small but meaningful activity to burn calories. Take a break every hour so for a brisk walk around the workplace. This would not only give you a break from work and screen time but also expend energy.

Get a Sit and Stand Desk

It is common to forget that you have been sitting for hours together once you get absorbed in your work. A sit-to-stand desk is a great idea in this case. One typically burns 2 extra calories per 15 minutes of standing as compared to sitting (6). So, substituting sitting with standing is a potential solution to prevent weight gain for those stuck at desks all day.

There are under-desk pedal bikes and ellipticals available online, which can be placed 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 in the day (7). If sustained over a period of time, this can lead to a 1.1 lb. weight loss. 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, with high sugar and 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 that have high fiber and protein content increase satiety and also 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 mins to have 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 too much weight loss. Furthermore, with how busy our lives are, it is not always possible to stick to a schedule. While it is essential to set aside time for a workout, working out at the same time every day may not be possible. The crucial thing is to set aside around 30 mins to get a workout at least 4 days of the 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. Certain 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 the children while having fun in the midst of 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 inculcates a lifelong love for the outdoors in the kids, 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 tasks like 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. For those of us involved in sedentary jobs, it is even harder. Due to the link between a sedentary lifestyle and several health conditions, we have to take control of our lifestyles and incorporate habits that will promote weight loss. I hope this blog has given you some ideas on ways to achieve this.

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Written by Pranjali Sharma, MD, FAPCR
Dr. Sharma is an American Board-Certified Internist and Endocrinologist, practicing as an Endocrinologist at Parkview Health System in Pueblo, Colorado. She is an accomplished clinician-educator and researcher with multiple peer-reviewed publications and leadership roles in national organizations, including The Obesity Medicine Association. She is passionate about combating obesity through an integrated approach of education, lifestyle counseling, and pharmacotherapy. She is an avid hiker and is currently training to hike up her first 14-ner!

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