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9 Tips to stay healthy at a desk job

Evolutionary speaking, working at a desk is a relatively recent development — the human body we inherited from our hunter-gatherer forefathers has evolved to move, and sitting hunched in front of a screen for hours at a time is against our nature. Add to that the stresses of a mentally demanding job and the eyestrain caused by staring at a screen and you have the perfect storm — chronic health issues are not surprisingly on the rise. And yet, there are simple rules you can follow to offset the harms of a desk job. Here are nine actionable tips to make office work healthier and more productive.

1. Correct posture

To me, maintaining a correct posture is the single most important habit for better health when working at the office. Sitting upright with your shoulders relaxed and your chin up facilitates deep breathing and helps you avoid tension in the body. By taking deeper breaths and having less tension, you feel more energetic and less stressed out. 
To help me keep an upright posture, I use lumbar support on my office chair and laptop stand to bring my laptop screen up to eye level. A standing desk or even a treadmill desk is also worth tinkering with – you can order one and take it for a spin and return it in a week if it is not your thing.

2. Deep breathing

Office workers often experience a condition called “screen apnea” – the tendency of most people to hold their breath when looking at a screen. We do it subconsciously and the best way to correct this habit is to be mindful of our breaths – just focus on deep belly breathing when answering emails. Over time, you will develop the habit of breathing consciously while doing screen time.

Along with having a correct posture, deep breathing is the best habit we can cultivate to keep our energy levels high while working at a desk job. Deep belly breathing also calms the mind and helps us keep grounded and not be so much in our heads after a long day at the office.


3. Meditation

Have you noticed that after a full day’s work in front of the screen, you sometimes feel lightheaded and spacey or you have a throbbing dull headache and you feel you are all up in your head? This is because of having built up nervous tension that needs to be released in order to feel grounded and energized again. You let go of this tension by meditating.
Meditation is really simple – all you need to do is sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor with your back straight up against a wall, breathe naturally and observe your thoughts – don’t suppress them but don’t follow them either. Consciously relax your body, especially your eyes, jaw, neck, and shoulders, and feel the tension dissolve. 20 minutes of meditation at the end of the work cycle is enough to reset the nervous system for most people.


4. Pomodoro technique

I am a huge proponent of the method – by taking a 15-minute break every hour; I get a lot more done at the end of the workday and feel less stressed than if I were to push through the whole day without a break. The rationale is simple – with deep intellectual work, you get about an hour to an hour and a half of peak performance, after which your attention drifts, and your thinking goes in a loop. By taking a quick break every hour, you get not just one hour of peak performance in an 8-hour workday but 6 full hours of peak performance.
Taking regular breaks does not mean checking your social media at the end of the work cycle. The Pomodoro method works best if you take at least 15 minutes breaks of active rest – stretch, do push-ups, take a short walk outside, socialize with co-workers or play with your dog. Anything to get your mind off work and get your blood moving.
You can experiment with the exact timing – try different work & rest routines until you find what works best for you. Here is a Pomodoro cycle you can get started with:

5. Work-life balance

Intellectual and desk workers are often guilty of still solving problems in their heads long after they have closed their laptops and called it a day. The habit is as counter-productive as lifting weights at home after a hard session at the gym. The brain needs alternating periods of rest and activity just like your muscles. Over time, this inability to rest is what leads to burnout and ultimately starting to hate your job and boss/clients.  
Over the years of working as a freelance designer, I have developed a simple ritual that helps me cut mental ties with work to better enjoy my downtime. To do this, I imagine cutting an invisible cord between me and my work desk or laptop and after that, I visualize throwing any work-related thought that comes up in a mental trash can. If you are a stay-at-home freelancer, it is also helpful to have a separate room dedicated to work, instead of working out of your bedroom.
6. Massage
Getting a regular massage by a professional is a great way to destress and ease shoulder and head tension accumulated while doing desk work. If you don’t have access to a massage therapist, you can learn simple but powerful self-massage techniques – pay attention to the eye, jaw, neck, and shoulder areas as this is where we as office workers lock tension in our bodies. Aside from the other therapeutic benefits, close human contact and touch also improve our psychological well-being as it helps combat the feeling of disconnect and loneliness that is so rampant in today’s digital age.
7. Digital curfew
Studies have irrefutably linked insomnia with blue light emitted from screens – this is because the blue specter of light disturbs the circadian rhythm by interfering with natural melatonin production after sunset. To avoid this, it is essential to stay away from electronic devices two hours before bedtime. I have also found blue light filtering apps and glasses to be helpful (I use IRIS).
8. Exercise for the eyes
Staring at a screen for prolonged periods of time puts a tremendous burden on the eyes. While there is no way to avoid this, there are techniques you can use to mitigate the harm. I have found that doing eye exercises helps – I do eye circles, I remember to blink regularly, and now and then take a few seconds to focus on an object outside of my office window. Here is a simple eye workout routine you can try:

9. Digital detox

Last but not least, digital detoxes are an underrated way to recharge and fight work-related stress. The rules are simple – you need to spend at least 24 hours away from all screens and wi-fi. Easier said than done but if you push through with it, you will wake up the next day like you’ve pushed the reset button on life. We do this to replenish our dopamine reserves and let our brains and nervous systems wind down after a long week’s work. If a single day or weekend is not enough, you can try a digital sabbatical and take more than a week away from digital devices. And you get bonus points if you spend those precious offline moments out in nature, walking or doing sports!

I discovered digital detoxes a few years ago after a stressful round of projects for a large corporate client. The week I spent offline running barefoot on the beach every morning literally saved my life and since then I try to at least spend each Sunday with my laptop closed and data turned off on my phone.

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