If you spend your day sitting in an office or cubicle, it may surprise you to learn that prolonged periods of inactivity at your desk may be putting you at higher risk for certain forms of cancer.
According to a new report presented in early November at the annual conference of the American Institute for Cancer Research, an estimated 49,000 cases of breast cancers and 43,000 cases of colon cancer in the United States each year are linked to a lack of physical activity.
“We’ve always believed that an active lifestyle is beneficial in cancer prevention, but it’s been difficult to study,” says Carrie Costantini, MD, an oncologist at Scripps Health in San Diego, California. “What we’re seeing now is mounting evidence that lack of activity leads to inflammation, which is a significant component in the development of cancer.”
Inactivity is believed to increase other cancer risk factors such as excessive body fat and insulin resistance. The good news is you don’t have to commit to a gym membership to reduce your chances of getting the disease.
At one extreme are radical – and costly – solutions to reengineer the "sedentary” job, like changing the furniture. Workers at Silicon Valley employers like Google and Facebook, for example, are reportedly trading traditional desks for standing desks, which elevate the workstation to a comfortable (and ergonomically sound) elbow height.
A newer and more active variation, the treadmill desk, ups the ante and helps workers burn thousands of extra calories every day as they slowly stroll at a leisurely 1-2 miles per hour while they read, write, calculate, and talk on the phone.
But office workers don’t have to go quite that far, according to Dr. Costantini. “Activity has always been an important piece of the cancer puzzle, and based on this new evidence, I’d advise everybody to try to work in some physical activity into their day.”
If you spend a good portion of your waking hours on your duff, you can make a conscious commitment to move more without radically reconfiguring your workspace – and it doesn’t take much effort. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends taking one- or two-minute activity breaks every hour.
Take the stairs, not the elevator. That’s always the first word in workplace exercise advice. Here are more ways to ramp-up circulation, and potentially, reduce your risk of cancer:
- Set the alarm on your phone or computer to go off every 60 minutes throughout the workday, and take that as a cue to stand up and move somewhere. (Bonus: You can get those eight glasses of water recommended each day by strolling to the water fountain once an hour).
- Don’t just let that dictionary sit untouched on your desk; use it as a hand weight as you read emails or talk on the phone. Switch arms every 30 seconds or so.
- Lose your work landline. Reroute work calls to your mobile phone, making sure to free yourself from your desk and walk around anytime you’re talking.
- Pretend you’re a character on Sports Night or The West Wing: Take your meetings standing up. When you find you have a need to resolve a quick issue at work, invite a colleague to walk and talk, rather than emailing.
- Frequent stretches and leg-lifts can add motion in between walks.
- Park a few extra spaces (or even an extra block) away from work.
- Take five minutes for a brisk stroll outside in the neighborhood to combine cancer-fighting activity with vitamin-D-producing sunlight and a calming, meditative breath of fresh air.
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