Moving Bodies – Moving Minds

When are your most productive days at the office? I find some of my best days are ones that have been broken up by lots of physical movement. When I step away from my work and move, I can come back with fresh eyes to complete a task or try a new approach to something. I think of it as breaking up the day. In fact, a study by the Draugiem group using a productivity app called Desktime found that the most productive workers take 17 minute breaks between each 52 minute working period. I’m not sure how they arrived at such precise optimal intervals, but I’m pretty convinced of the overall principle based on personal experience.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of expectations at a desk job that have little to do with performance of the actual job, and more to do with decorum and appearances, starting with the desk. There is plenty of research to suggest that sitting all day has negative health consequences, but less discussion of how our office environments are overly conducive to sitting and discourage physical movement.

Yes, desks are an issue. Stand-up desks are gaining market-share, but I’ve personally had hip troubles exacerbated by standing still for too long. I’ve set-up a treadmill desk, which I find useful for talking on the phone and taking notes (who doesn’t like to walk and talk?), but ineffective for writing. When it comes down to it, being able to change your position and your environment help your body and your mind to perform better as part of a “breaking up your day” strategy.

But choice of desk and (lack of) chair is really the tip of the ice-berg of moving your body when you’ve got a desk job. If you agree with the idea that your ability to concentrate is limited and you already take breaks, how do you spend that 17 minutes (or whatever break length you take). Do you move?

There is lots of evidence that short work-outs can be highly effective fitness strategy. For example, you may have seen or heard about this 7-minute workout that combines strength and aerobic training. So why not use this time to do a short workout? Well, for starters, you might be wearing clothing and/or shoes you cannot move well in. There might be no space or other opportunity for physical movement at hand. These other aspects to office culture inhibit the opportunity to move on breaks, and therefore inhibit the opportunity to be healthy.

I have a few suggestions to jump these cultural fences, move on your breaks and even while you work to facilitate healthier and more productive workdays. Your office mates may find some of these actions odd, but you’d be surprised who comes round to support movement and participate:

  • Put a chin-up bar in your office door. I installed one when the city pruned my favorite pull-up branch out in the park. A couple of office mates immediately starting using it as well. It fostered some great comradery.
  • Wear shoes and clothing you can move in. I often go barefoot in my office and my officemates seem to have gotten used to it, but Vivobarefoot and some other shoe companies make some great minimalist dress shoes as another option. You could also just wear athletic shoes if that’s your thing.
  • Find spaces and opportunities to move. Parks, especially with pavilions when it rains can be great if close enough to your office. Maybe there is a vacant back office to practice your handstands. Put your laptop on the floor and stretch during that webinar.
  • On a conference call and don’t need to take notes? Time for a walk. I regularly have 2 hours of conference calls on Mondays, and am able to get a few miles of walking or moving in the park. If I didn’t leave the office, I’d likely be checking email and barely listening, so this strategy helps me pay attention.

There are opportunities to move at a desk job, but you have to seek them out and push back a bit against the dominant decorum paradigm. As more people push, we just might move the cultural comfort zone to a place where more people see moving at office work as completely normal.

If we value movement as part of mental work, technology to integrate it into our digital interface could make movement more integral to workdays. Remember the holodeck on Star Trek or the virtual reality interface on Jurassic Park that scientists used to re-assemble dinosaur DNA? This technology is more-or-less already here, and could lead to movement while working, instead of just on breaks.

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