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Better Health at Work

Online personal trainer Andrew Cate looks at how the workplace environment can place your health at risk-and what you can do about it.

Changes in our work culture, including a dramatic reduction in physically active jobs, have led to a large increase in the number of people who are unhealthy due to inactivity and the resulting excess weight. It isn’t uncommon for people to spend a third of their adult life at work, so the workplace environment is important to our wellbeing.

An ever-increasing reliance on workplace computers has resulted in people spending large portions of their workday seated behind a desk. Prolonged sitting minimises the amount of kilojoules burned, which contributes to weight gain and a slowing of your metabolic rate. Blood also pools in your lower trunk. Sitting for extended periods can also increase the risk of back pain, while a lack of muscular movement can reduce the function of your digestive, circulatory and lymphatic systems.

Sitting is a health hazard—or at least too much of it!

Time spent sitting may also be associated with other unhealthy behaviours, such as snacking on junk food and drinking too much caffeine. It is even thought that prolonged sitting and sedentary behaviour places your health at risk to the same extent as smoking and high blood pressure! Research has shown that sitting for more than six hours a day increases the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease in both men and women.

The workplace has a very strong influence on the ideas, attitudes and lifestyle of most working adults, and it’s important to consider how it affects your health. Three of the most important issues to address to reduce any risks to your health are diet, your activity levels and your management of stress.

Eat Well

Because you will usually eat at least one main meal at work and perhaps an odd snack or two, the choices you make can have a major impact on your health over time. It’s important to avoid a last-minute rush and be forced to grab something on the way to work each morning and then again during your lunch break. It’s usually when you look for something quick and easy that you’ll make the worst nutritional decisions.

Being organised and having healthy food choices available can make it a lot easier to eat well.

Following are some important dietary strategies that can help you make the right food choices at work.

Don’t skip breakfast. It can be easy to skip breakfast when you’re running late or just not hungry in the morning. Yet this can leave you tired and hungry by midmorning, making it more likely that you’ll go looking for a commercially prepared, low nutrition, highly processed snack. You can avoid this by planning ahead of time to have healthier foods that you can eat in the car, on the bus or on the train—such as fruit, breakfast bars, breakfast drinks or low-fat bran muffins.

Be organised with your workplace lunch. Again, plan ahead. Make a healthy sandwich, soup or salad the night before. Prepare lunches that include whole grains and vegetables.

Drink up. Drink plenty of water at work, especially if your office is air-conditioned. Be especially careful to avoid soft-drink vending machines and full-fat milk drinks.

Snack well. Munch on fresh and canned fruit between meals. Take fruits to work that are easy to store and eat, like an apple, pear, mandarin or banana. Other snack ideas include nuts and unsweetened low-fat natural yoghurt.

Eat less on the days you don’t exercise. To help manage your weight, reduce your portion sizes or snack less on the days you’re inactive. You won’t be burning off as many kilojoules, so it makes sense to cut back your intake.

Use your weekends. Use the extra time you have on weekends to shop, plan your meals and even cook large batches of foods that you can freeze and use later.

Find Opportunities For Activity

It may seem difficult to fit exercise into your day when you’re busy and tired, but you really can’t afford not to exercise. Regular exercise helps your body work more efficiently, and it protects you against conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis.

Physical activity can also help you to perform better at work by improving the quality of your sleep, increasing your energy levels, improving your memory, creativity and concentration, and improving your immune function so you are less likely to get sick.

Any activity that makes you feel warm and slightly out of breath is beneficial to your health. Even small amounts of movement will contribute to counteracting the dangers of sitting. Make it a goal to exercise half an hour every day, or at least every second day.

Here are some tips to help you get moving.

Find an exercise you enjoy. You are much more likely to stick with an activity you enjoy.

Include a friend or work colleague in your program. Being active with others is a good way to keep motivated and be sociable at the same time.

Accumulate your exercise. You can incorporate more movement into your lifestyle by taking short bouts of exercise throughout the day. For example, a 10-minute walk before work, a 10-minute walk to get a sandwich at lunchtime and a 10-minute walk to or from the bus on the way home add up to 30 minutes of exercise.

Schedule your exercise. It’s important to think ahead about how exercise will fit into your day without disrupting other activities. Plan your exercise sessions in advance, and record them in your diary. The earlier in the day you exercise, the less disruptive it will be and the more likely you will be to do it.

Manage Your Stress

While some stress is normal, too much can have a negative effect on your work and can also place a strain on your relationships with family and friends.

Workplace stress is now recognised as one of the most prevalent health problems for employees.

It has many causes, although it generally results from a combination of high demands and low levels of control. Increasing pressures from deadlines, traffic to and from work, computers, long working hours and possible conflicts with co-workers, are just a few of the issues that workers face.

Stress can be both physical (sore neck or back) and mental (anxiety from constant deadlines), so it helps to identify the stressful aspects of your job. Managing stress is an ongoing process involving a range of strategies to both treat and prevent it.

And just as there are many causes of workplace stress, so there are numerous strategies to reduce or prevent it. The suggestions below may help you to reduce the negative effects of stress on your working life.

Take regular holidays. Try not to accrue your annual leave hours. Regular holidays and days off will help you avoid exhaustion and burnout. They will also help you reconnect with your friends and family, and you will have renewed job satisfaction when you return to work.

Take a mini-break. If you begin to feel those stress levels rising, use your lunch break to escape. A short walk will be good for your circulation and it will give you a chance to clear your mind. Alternatively, take 30 seconds every hour to get away from your computer and desk and recharge your body. Stretching and movement help to stimulate blood flow and boost energy levels while also reducing tension, fatigue and stiffness.

Get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep will help your body to deal with stress, allowing you to wake up refreshed and rejuvenated. You may not often get a chance to sleep in, but you can achieve the same result by going to bed earlier.

Manage your time. Set realistic goals and deadlines, and plan work projects well in advance. Make lists and priorities, and schedule all the important aspects of your life, including work, relationships and family.

Find what relaxes you. That might take the form of a foot massage, a hot bath, a good book or gardening. There are plenty of ways you can unwind. The key is to discover the ways to relax that are most helpful to you—and then use them regularly to keep stress at bay!

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