In my first real desk job, I worked as an editorial assistant at a travel company proofreading a thousand-page resort directory, making sure words like "laundry facilities" were spelled and spaced correctly. Yes, that sucked, but it wasn't the worst of it. The worst was having to sit in my cubicle day after day, hour after hour.
Requiring people to sit in a chair for more than half their waking hours is against the natural "movement patterns of our ancient forebears," as Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, might put it.
All the sitting made me miserable. And more troubling still were the extra pounds I saw creeping onto my ass and thighs as a result of my desk jockey-dom. While chained to a desk, someone of my height and weight only burns about 50 calories per hour. That means I needed a mere 400 to 450 calories to get through the workday. That's the approximate number of calories in a typical 6" Subway sandwich, without any cheese, mayo, or sauces. Add in a 300 calorie breakfast (cereal, soy milk, banana) and a few snacks, and the average worker could easily be looking at a minimum of 500 unused calories per workday, if she doesn't consciously try to battle the bulge. Since 3,500 calories constitute a pound, at this rate the typical desk drone could tack on a pound of fat every seven workdays.
My solution? I decided to allow myself to eat as much healthy food as I wanted while at work, but as soon as I punched out, I stopped eating for the day. It was a little extreme, but it worked. With the help of evening runs, I lost every pound I'd gained and more.
I know not everyone will be willing to quit eating at 5 or 6 p.m., five days a week. But the truth remains that while working the average desk job, most people are going to have to actively try to not get fat. So I went to a nutritionist for more ideas on how to avoid packing on those unsightly and unhealthy "keyboard kilos."
Lisa Eichenbaum, MS, RD, LD, is a dietician and nutritionist practicing in Coral Gables. She said she had personally experienced the "body shock" of transitioning from an active job to a desk job. "If you don't make the effort not to, you will definitely gain weight," she said.
When people eat more calories than they burn, they get fatter. Most people know this, but this knowledge is only helpful once you actually know your calorie needs. Eichenbaum pointed out that there are calculators online whereby people can enter their gender, height, weight, age, and activity level to compute approximately how many calories they're going through. This, coupled either with old fashioned calorie counting or a calorie counting app, can help people avoid work-related weight gain caused by a calorie surplus.
Her next general recommendation -- aimed specifically at recent college grads waltzing into the professional workplace for the first time -- was to cut out as many liquid calories as possible, both during and after work. "Alcohol is big: a beer is 150, a shot of alcohol is 100, not to mention there's the soda, the fruit punch and the mixers that go in there. Even wine, it's all empty calories," she said. "Be careful what you're drinking. The Frappuccinos at Starbucks, too," she said.
By consciously cutting down on caloric beverages -- yes, even juices -- and substituting water, sparkling water, and teas, people can spare themselves several hundred empty (non-nutritive) calories per day. This is especially important because some studies have indicated that the brain does not recognize these liquid calories the same way it does solid food (though evidence on this is not "solid"). Think about it: you can easily drink 310 calories of sugary iced tea and still be ravenous, but if you ate as many calories' worth of whole fruit -- three large pears, for example -- you would probably be full for a while (plus you'd get lots of fiber and phytonutrients). So a vow to drink only water could seriously help any effort to maintain a healthy weight, even while sitting stationary at a desk most of the time.
In order to feel fuller throughout the day and to thereby avoid snacking that can undermine your weight maintenance goals, Eichenbaum recommends loading up on fruits and vegetables at work. "They're all low calorie density, high-fiber. Now [the government recommends] the My Plate portions plate... and half your plate is supposed to be vegetables. Cooked vegetables, steamed vegetables, salad. Use a low fat, light dressing and add your fruits throughout the day. The recommendation is actually to get five to nine servings, and Americans usually get less than half of that," Eichenbaum said. So buy a bag of organic apples and stash it in your desk for easy snacking access throughout the week.
Now about lunch. It's sad, but true: when you're bored at work, compiling and placing the mass takeout lunch order can be one of the most exciting parts of the day. You don't have to sit out every one of these, but it's important to take some time to figure out which takeout items are conducive to your health goals and which are not. Here's a hint: fried foods are not. "A teaspoon of oil is 40, 45 calories, and with chicken fingers, French fries and other fried foods, you're adding at least four teaspoons of oil," she said.
>Eichenbaum didn't go as far as to recommend that people totally stop eating at the end of the workday, but she did say that eating breakfast every day and reversing the roles of lunch and dinner -- making lunch the heartier meal and dinner the lighter one -- could help office workers stay trim. "Watch your carbs for dinner, because that's the worst place to run up on the carbs... do half of the carbs and double the vegetables," she said.
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Of course taking a brisk walk during your lunch break helps to burn off excess calories, but summer temperatures make that option unrealistic in Miami and many other cities. At-work exercise devices, like this elliptical machine you can use under your desk, are becoming more popular, but Eichenbaum hasn't actually heard testimony from a client who has tried one yet. She acknowledged, though, that if workers consistently pedaled or stepped at work for even a portion of the day, it could make a big difference in their calorie consumption. "I guess it depends on your work, whether you would be able to multi-task with one or not," she said.
Another option she recommends is bringing your exercise clothes to work. "That way you go straight to the gym or the park after work, because sometimes when you go home first you get too lazy." Focusing on getting more exercise outside of work -- with Zumba, bike rides, and yoga -- is what helped her stay trim when her work suddenly became more sedentary, Eichenbaum said.