Are you the kind of office worker who sits staring at the screen for hour upon hour, only shifting to reach for a bag of chips or a soda when you’re desperate for an energy boost?
If your desk job is demanding or stressful, it’s easy to slip into bad habits—whether you’re working at home, a few steps from the refrigerator, or in a downtown office where the vending machine only stocks candy.
Moving too little and snacking too much while you work can lead to health problems, however. Here, nutritionists explain what three things you should avoid if you sit at a desk all day.
The right snack can give you energy and motivation to get through a long day, but you should be mindful about what you eat and when.
According to Rachel Paul, a nutritionist from Jersey City, snacks need to be planned for. “Mindless snacking can lead to excess calorie intake, as well as feeling sluggish and not being able to properly concentrate on your job,” she said.
“Instead, plan for a filling snack that you love the taste of, and keeps your body feeling its best.” She suggests an apple with two tablespoons of peanut butter and one tablespoon of chocolate chips.
Paula Doebrich, a nutritionist based in New York City, recommends “snacks that will fuel you and make you feel satiated, such as cheese and crackers, hummus and veggies, yogurt and fruit, or fruit with nut butter.”
She added: “One or two snacks per day will help you stay focused, keep blood sugar levels stable—which helps prevent that midday slump—and keep you from feeling overly hungry in the evening.”
Doebrich cautions against snacking out of boredom, though. “When we keep snacks around and eat them mindlessly, we may be eating out of boredom and exceeding calories needs quickly without noticing. Instead of snacks, keep a stress ball or other objects on your desk to distract yourself.”
Maria Bella, a nutritionist who works in Miami and New York, also warns against snacking when you’re bored at work—or tired, angry or anxious. “Food can only cure hunger,” she said.
When you do want a snack, she recommends lean protein with fiber from produce, as “this combination will keep the blood sugar stable and provide ample energy for long work hours.” A lean protein snack might be Greek yogurt or a slice of turkey.
Bella also suggests aiming for six colors of produce each day, as each color provides different benefits. “Plus, it is mentally much healthier to focus on abundance instead of restriction when it comes to food,” she added.
Sitting Down All Day
When you work a desk job, you spend long hours sitting in a chair and staring at a screen, but in the long term these sedentary habits can have negative impacts on your physical and mental health. According to Doebrich, sitting for hours will make you feel sluggish and cause back pain, which can in turn lead to unwillingness to be active before and after work.
“With working from home, many of us have significantly reduced activity levels because we no longer have to walk to the train or car park, go inside the office, walk to other rooms for meetings and so on,” she explained.
“These small activities all matter. Instead of sitting at the desk for hours and only getting up to get lunch, make sure you get up every 30 minutes and stretch out, take a few steps, or simply stand at your desk and change position.
“Not only will it increase your activity levels, it will also protect your back, preventing injuries.”
Doebrich also recommends breaking up your exercise routine by doing two or three shorter workouts rather than one big one. “You could do 15 minutes in the morning, 15 at lunch and 15 after work instead of doing a long 45-minute session.” Shorter workouts keep your heart pumping all day and have a better effect on your overall metabolic rate, as well as being more manageable, she explained.
Paul suggests getting up from your desk chair regularly, even if it’s only for a stretch. “Get up at least once an hour to stretch your legs and get your blood flowing,” she said.
If your activity levels have fallen since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, don’t beat yourself up for not getting enough exercise, Bella said. “Instead, focus on all the good choices [you’ve made] as those people who feel successful are a lot more likely to continue on their health journey.”
She recommends getting up and moving for five minutes for every hour you spend at work. It doesn’t matter what you do—you could walk up and down the stairs, or stroll round your office—as long as you move.
“This one change can add up to 45 minutes of total daily exercise without ever leaving your office. Plus, moderate amounts of exercise have been shown to suppress hunger,” Bella added.
Remember that your eyes need regular breaks too. Spending too much time staring at a screen can cause eye strains, headaches and neck problems—also known as computer vision syndrome. If you can see a window from your desk, look out at the view every so often.
Getting enough water is vital for a healthy life, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warns that dehydration can lead to unclear thinking, mood changes and ailments such as constipation and kidney stones.
There is no official recommendation for the amount of water adults should drink each day—it varies by age, sex and other factors, says the CDC—but the National Academy of Medicine has said adequate water intake is about 131 ounces a day for men and 95 ounces for women. This includes water that’s in other drinks and in food.
Drinking enough water can also prevent you from feeling hungry, according to Bella. “A part of our brain called the hypothalamus tends to confuse thirst with hunger,” she said. “Starbucks unsweetened passionfruit iced tea, chamomile tea, ginger tea, seltzer all count.”
Sugary sodas, sweetened waters, juices and sports/energy drinks do not count. “Drinking sugary drinks may give you a quick burst of energy, but all that sugar will keep your insulin levels up, which makes losing weight more difficult,” said Paul. Your dentist will also advise you to avoid sugary drinks.
Paul suggests iced water, seltzer water or decaffeinated coffee or tea. The CDC recommends only moderate consumption of caffeine—”up to about 3-5 cups of plain coffee” with no syrups or cream.
Doebrich’s final piece of advice for the desk dweller is simple: don’t forget to eat something. “A lot of us get so busy that we forget to eat and end up starving at the end of the work day, which only leads to very poor food choices and overcorrecting when it comes to the amount of food.”