If you spend most of your days at a desk, here’s some unsettling news: That office job could be bad for your health. Research indicates that people who sit for long stretches of time are 68 percent more likely to be overweight or obese, 47 percent more likely to be depressed, and 49 percent more likely to die from any cause than those who are more active throughout the day. But don’t panic — there are ways (besides quitting) to avoid death by office job. Subtle shifts in how you work — and how you think about work — can lead to measurable differences in your short- and long-term wellness. These four strategies can fit into even the busiest routine.
1. Stroke your creative fire.
A study from the University of Texas at Austin found that out-of-the-box thinkers are significantly healthier than their less innovative counterparts — so much so that they scored the physical equivalent of people six or seven years younger. Some experts believe one reason for this may be that creative people can be more effective problem solvers and better able to remedy health issues that arise. You can benefit even if you don’t have an obviously “creative” job in a field like photography or architecture, says study coauthor John Mirowsky, PhD: Simply try doing everyday tasks in novel ways. If you normally write memos in report form, try PowerPoint. If you’re assigned a brainstorming project, come up with double the ideas required. “The more challenging something is, the more creative it becomes,” says Mirowsky, “which stimulates your mind in a new way.”
2. Spruce up your cube.
A recent study found that people in open work spaces who had brought in personal items — photos, posters, kitschy figurines, artwork — were less likely to report feeling emotionally exhausted. “This kind of personalization allows workers to regain a sense of privacy and control of their environment,” says study coauthor Gregory A. Laurence, PhD, an assistant professor of management at the University of Michigan, Flint. “You’re saying to coworkers, This is what I want you to know about me, and that autonomy, no matter how small, appears to reduce burnout.”
3. Get thee to a water cooler.
A study in Health Psychology surveyed the work lives of more than 800 people and found that those who experienced emotional support from their colleagues had a 41 percent lower risk of dying from any cause two decades later than those without sympathetic peers. The connection between work buddies and wellness may be linked to oxytocin, says study coauthor Sharon Toker, PhD, chair of the organizational behavior program at Tel Aviv University. Though oxytocin is often associated with feelings of calm, researchers have found that production of the tend-and-befriend hormone can also increase when we’re anxious, driving us to seek out compassionate friends. “When you have people you can turn to, their encouragement can help decrease stress and over time promote longevity,” says Toker. “But the opposite appears to be true also: If you don’t have a strong support system, the release of oxytocin may actually trigger more stress.”
4. Punch out on a positive.
A 2012 study in the Academy of Management Journal found that women who wrote down three positive events — career related or otherwise — at the end of each workday, plus a brief reason why they thought each good thing had happened (“My boss complimented my work because she appreciates the effort I put in”), not only reported lower levels of stress but also experienced a reduction in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, and muscle tension. “This simple intervention works against our impulse to focus on the rough spots in our day,” says study coauthor Joyce Bono, PhD, a professor of management at the University of Florida. “It gives you the power to reframe your mood — and improve your health.”