When Shazia got a diagnosis for high cholesterol at her check-up this year, she was shocked. “Sure, I’m no marathon runner,” she says. “But high cholesterol? My elderly dad has high cholesterol and diabetes, and I’m way more healthy than he is. I’m thirty-seven, more active, and I work out.”
Tall, lean and toned, Shazia wondered how a healthy-looking girl like her could be at risk for cardiovascular disease. She works out at the gym 3-4 times a week. Sure, she could eat a little healthier, but it wasn’t like she was eating frozen pizzas or fast food all the time.
Shazia’s physician was puzzled as well, and had an in-depth discussion about Shazia’s lifestyle. Shazia ate healthily enough. She exercised regularly. She didn’t smoke or do drugs. She seemed in good mental health as well.
Then finally Shazia’s doctor asked a basic question. “What do you do for work?” he asked.
“I work in human resources,” Shazia answered.
“No, no,” the doctor said impatiently. “I mean, what do you do at your job?”
Shazia was confused. “Well, I answer e-mails, have meetings, draft memos and policies and create systems,” she said.
The doctor’s eyes lit up with understanding. “So you have a desk job? That’s your problem then,” he said. “You spend most of your day sitting on your butt, and it’s catching up to you.”
Shazia was incredulous — how could her desk job cause heart disease? But actually, Shazia’s part of a growing trend of people whose jobs make them sick. Our work is catching up to a lot of us — and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, aided and abetted by the techification of our work lives, is costing us our health.
You’d never look at Shazia and think she was in the early stages of heart disease. She comes from robust, athletic stock, and is naturally well-proportioned and toned. She even put herself through college by modeling for health magazines and athletic company catalogs.
“You know that girl in the magazines demonstrating pull-ups and push-ups? That was me,” Shazia says. “I’m literally the picture of health.”
She came by her physique both by hard work and genetics. “I come from an old farming family in Georgia, so we go far back, to the time when slaves were freed,” she says. “After my great-great-grandfather was freed, he managed to find a way to own his own farm, and my whole family worked on it together.”
Shazia’s great-grandfather told stories of working in the fields from dawn to sunset, engaged in the back-breaking work of physical labor. Farming has always been hard work, and most workers reached the end of the day ready to collapse in a heap of fatigue.
But Shazia’s ancestors lived to be quite old. “Most people survive into their 90s in my family, at least in earlier generations” she says. “The few who’ve died earlier passed away because of accidents or crime, not because they got sick.”
Yet farm work was time-consuming and often unpredictable. As part of a new generation coming of age in the shadow of the Great Depression, Shazia’s grandparents knew they could never pull themselves up economically if they continued to focus on agriculture. They urged Shazia’s father Delavan to find a new line of work for himself.
So Delavan found a way to go to college, where he studied engineering. He found a good job at an aviation company after graduation, married Shazia’s mother and started a family. He seemed to be on the way up.
“He was the first generation not to work on the farm,” Shazia says. “I have no doubt that if he hadn’t gotten out, I’d be in a much different place in life — worrying about crops and working the fields in some way all day.”
Education had been the way out for Shazia’s father, and he emphasized the same with his three daughters. He pushed Shazia and her sisters to succeed in school. Being smart, they gravitated to careers that emphasized their intelligence as well.
“Being a model was my way of rebelling,” Shazia laughs. “But it supported me through school, where I was studying business and psychology. I always knew I’d do something professional with myself. I’d watch movies like ‘Working Girl’ and imagine myself walking down the street in a business suit, power-walking and conquering the city.”
True to her word, after graduation, Shazia got a job with a consulting firm, which allowed her to travel for a few years, until she settled in New Jersey and started working in human resources. This allowed her to combine her interests in business and psychology.
Shazia now spends her days hammering out company hiring strategy with the chief officers at her consulting firm, working on employee policies and interviewing job candidates. “I count myself really lucky in that I love my job,” Shazia says. “And I know my parents are proud of me as well.”
And yet somehow, Shazia’s job is slowly but surely killing her, according to Shazia’s doctor — the very job that signaled success and achievement in her eyes.
In many ways, Shazia’s family’s trajectory echoes the transformation of the economy and work over the past few decades, going from agrarian-based to information-based.
If Shazia had been born into her family a few generations earlier, she would’ve been expected to work on the family farm “or marry,” she says.
If she wanted a more professional job, she could likely find work as a teacher, or find herself a job in the service industry — her options as a black woman were limited. Working in an office for a company — as Shazia dreamed about as a girl — would have been inconceivable.
But as the economy shifted to one based in manufacturing goods — including the services to distribute, sell and market those goods — the nature of work began to shift. Instead of the farm, working-class citizens hopping onto the ladder advancement shifted to factories or the offices within them.
If Shazia worked as an office, she would’ve sat at a typewriter, though it’s likely she’d be getting up often to go to the mimeograph machine to make copies. She’d take her hour-long lunch every day, likely heading out of the office to the corner shop for a quick sandwich — or maybe taking a bag lunch outside to get some fresh air.
Slowly, however, the economy shifted yet again, from manufacturing goods to creating and leveraging information. As a result, the workplace itself changed as more sophisticated office and informational technology made its way into the office.
An office worker like Shazia would’ve worked with early clunky computers or trek over to a copy room to hit the copier or fax machine. These innovations eliminated redundancies and made boring clerical tasks more convenient, faster and efficient.
Early information technology made a huge impact on the workplace. Not only did it save time and effort for workers in the long run, it created or abetted new work arrangements such as telecommuting, global business travel and remote offices. It enabled the globalization of business, making communication between time zones faster.
On the micro level, workers theoretically could boost productivity and free up energy to work on more strategic tasks. Some sociologists even forecasted that workers would put in less hours but do more work.
But something happened along the way as information technology seeped deep into the workplace — especially once it combined itself with the Internet. E-mail, cloud storage and mobile Web now make it possible for workers to work from anywhere and anytime — and they often do.
Now workers also spend longer hours seated at their desk, huddled in front of computers or tablets. They don’t even have to leave their desks anymore to mail a document, make a phone call or make a copy.
They don’t even leave their desk to go eat lunch — in fact, four out of five workers eat at their desks for lunch everyday, according to NPR.
The result is a less healthy workforce on many levels. Long periods of sitting have been linked to increased heart disease, diabetes and poorer mental health, according to the BBC.
Sitting too much for too long periods of time slows the metabolism, which affects blood pressure, as well as how the body processes fat and blood sugar. And on a basic level, bodies simply don’t burn as much calories when they don’t move. In fact, standing burns an extra 50 calories an hour, compared to sitting.
Even those who work out regularly are still prone to the effects of prolonged inactivity. According to CBS News, a 2015 study found sitting for long periods of time — about 8-9 hours a day — raised the risk of heart disease by 14 percent, cancer by 13 percent and diabetes by 91 percent. And if you get no exercise at all, you have a 40 percent risk of early death. Those who get some exercise still have a ten-percent risk of early death if they have a sedentary lifestyle.
Rates of heart disease and diabetes overall have gone up as Americans have become more sedentary and obese. Public health is a complicated mosaic of nutrition, food distribution and choice, and many other factors — but it’s no doubt that personal choices in our diet and activity levels have a huge impact.
Interestingly enough, these illnesses are known as diseases of affluence, since they rarely pop up in poorer countries. Our plush, convenient lifestyles and work lives are slowly contributing to our physical decline — unless we apply mindful effort to address it.
Shazia was in danger of becoming one of these statistics. According to her doctor, being in the early stages of cardiovascular disease put her in the line of fire for a probable heart attack or some other kind of medical intervention — unless she changed her lifestyle.
Shazia wanted real proof that she was as sedentary as the doctor said. The doctor told Shazia to track the amount of time she spent seated during her day. Tracking helps us glean exactly how much we eat and spend money — and it would help Shazia truly understand how much time she spent not moving. Her doctor recommended a fitness tracker, like a Fitbit.
For a week, she recorded her levels of inactivity. What she discovered surprised her. She spent nearly nine full waking hours a day not moving — either seated at work, sitting on the sofa relaxing or while having a meal or commuting. “That’s a third of a day, in addition to sleeping,” Shazia points out.
Shazia also overestimated the amount she was up and about, too: she engaged in movement only about an hour on the days she exercised — much less on days she didn’t. “If you made a pie chart of my typical day, being active would only take up a sliver of a slice,” she says. “Suddenly what my physician was saying made sense.”
Tracking also revealed some previously unnoticed bad habits as well. “My doctor had me monitor and track my diet, and I discovered I ate bigger portions than I thought,” Shazia says. “I was also a big grazer — it was easy just to grab a bite here and there at work and eat at my desk all day since I didn’t regularly eat lunch. The result is that I ate way more than if I just took the time to eat a real meal.”
Getting a real picture of her health habits gave Shazia a starting point to change her sedentary lifestyle. She began with deceptively simple changes, such getting up from her desk at regular intervals to stand, stretch and walk around.
She found this harder than she thought. She says she often got caught up in what she was doing — especially when she was on the computer or Internet — and it was easy to lose track of time. “Suddenly, I’d look up and it’d be two hours past,” she says.
As a result, Shazia decided to employ some help in the form of apps and software. She used reminders through her Google apps to ping her every hour, or the Stand Up app when she wasn’t at her desk. She would then get up and take some kind of movement break.
“It was super annoying,” she says, “But it worked, and I logged more activity on my Fitbit, whether it was just walking a little around the office, standing for a bit or stretching.”
She also began taking the stairs more often, taking the elevator halfway up the building and walking the rest of the way up to her tenth-floor office. She also paced when she was on the phone. The minutes added up, and soon she was able to add an hour or two of movement to her day.
She also made other changes at work. She began to request walking meetings with her staff, for example. “If there was just a small group, we’d just take a walk around the grounds,” she says.
The idea caught on at her company, she says, and in a few weeks it became part of the office culture to walk and talk during small meetings.
This led to even more changes at the company level. Her bosses became interested in the idea of improving the entire company’s collective health, and decided to install standing desks for any employee that requested them.
“It was an expensive proposition upfront,” Shazia says. “But it resulted in more energy and health for everyone all around, so I think it was worth it. People felt more creative as well.”
Movement was just one piece of the puzzle for Shazia. She was healthy all around when it came to diet — “I make decent choices most of the time,” she says — but her grazing habit and her late hours weren’t as healthy for her as she wanted. She decided instead to eat a normal lunch, at a normal hour — and not at her desk.
“This made a surprisingly big impact,” she says. “On so many levels. I felt more refreshed and had more energy, just from taking a good break and taking time to get out. And I didn’t feel the need to snack constantly like I used to, as long as the lunch I ate had lots of protein, some carbs and a good amount of veggies and fruit.”
More importantly, taking a prolonged break made Shazia more productive and creative overall. This correlates with what many experts know — creativity and innovation are closely linked to changing your environment, according to NPR. Companies that have a good “lunch culture” often benefit from better brainstorming and ideas that comes when workers make a point to step away from their desks.
A few months into making changes, Shazia says her blood pressure and cholesterol levels have dropped. But mostly she feels more energetic and alert. Ironically, moving more gives her more vitality. “Energy begets more energy,” she notes.
Shazia says she’s constantly amazed at the big impact that small changes like eating lunch away from her desk make in her overall health. “It’s such a cliche, but small but consistent changes make the biggest impact,” she says. “Good health doesn’t need drastic measures, as long as you can stay committed to small but important things over time.” ♦