Sedentary jobs help make us fat

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Another reason to dread the ol' 9 to 5 -- it can make you fat.

A study published by the journal PLoS One that followed job trends over the past 50 years found that American workers aren't working as hard as they used to. While most fingers pointed to poor diet and lack of exercise as reason for America's expanding waistline, the workplace is one facet that has been relatively ignored.

But now the eight hours Americans spend planted in front of a computer screen are facing scrutiny, especially with the rise of sedentary jobs. Researchers estimate that, compared to the '60s, workers burn about 120 to 140 calories less per day, which coincides with the gradual weight gain that has made obesity an epidemic.

In the study, researchers point to a shift from occupations that require physical labor to more sedentary office jobs. Jobs with light or no physical activity have steadily risen since the '60s, while those with moderate intensity physical activity have dropped from 48 percent to 20 percent in 2008. One of the major loss of physical labor comes with the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Pittsburgh, the great Steel City of yore, hasn't been spared. In the past 20 years, Pittsburgh has lost about 400,000 manufacturing jobs, almost halving the number of workers in the industry.

United Steel Workers health, safety and environment director Michael Wright said that not only have manufacturing jobs diminished, but the ones that remain are also becoming more sedentary. As more power tools and mobile equipment become available, he said, operations in steel mills and chemical plants require less physical labor.

"Automation definitely reared its ugly head," said Lynn Kazor, the vice president of the wellness committee at Oberg Industries, a company in Freeport that manufactures metal components and tooling. While the company still has jobs that require standing, the bulk of the physical activity, such as heavy lifting, is done by machines.

So now, instead of lifting and moving objects, workers control machines that do the work for them. The rise of technology has also made jobs with little activity even more sedentary. As computers and email become the linchpin of the workplace, even small actions such as passing on a memo have become almost obsolete.

Linda Anderson, a Franklin Park resident who works as an office manager, said the computer has made her job even more sedentary, especially in the past decade. "We instant-message each other instead of getting up and talking," she said.

And while that might not seem like a major contribution to obesity, sports medicine physician Tanya Hagen at UPMC Presbyterian said that the inactivity adds up.

"In the end, it's calories in and calories out," she said. Because people are burning fewer calories than in the past, they're accumulating extra calories at the end of the day. Dr. Hagen estimated that if a person has a 150-calorie surplus every day, that will cause them to gain one pound every two weeks, or about 25 pounds in a year.

Weight gain isn't the only negative byproduct of the office chair. Researchers from the University of Western Australia found that working in a sedentary job for more than 10 years may double one's risk for distal colon and rectal cancer. Although the study didn't explore why sedentary work is linked to certain types of cancer, it did say the association remains, even among those who have active lives outside the office.

To stave the detriments of sedentary work, Dr. Hagen recommends making the workplace more active -- even if that means getting up and doing squats next to the chair.

"What people need to take from the study isn't that we're killing ourselves from sedentary work, but [an attitude of] 'Now I have to expend 150 calories.' "

Activities that can burn 150 calories include 30 minutes of walking or gardening.

Because caloric outtake is cumulative, incorporating small but frequent motions into daily work can make a difference, said Mary Goessler, medical director of quality management at Highmark. "It's a dent," she said.

Ms. Anderson said she tries to get up as much as possible, volunteering for errands whenever she can. "I think I probably annoy people with how much I get up."

Dr. Goessler said there's no "magic silver bullet" that will end obesity, but taking small steps like Ms. Anderson can make a difference.

She said health insurance companies like Highmark have been trying to promote this attitude for the past decade, with wellness programs at work becoming increasingly prominent. Some things that Highmark offers is six yearly visits with a nutritionist and weight loss programs like Drop 10 in 10, which challenges employees to drop 10 pounds or 10 percent of their body weight in 10 weeks. Participants receive guide books, a food measurer and resistance bands to help with the process.

Oberg Industries offers an incentive program for its employees, where employees can trade exercise for points, earning gift cards for their work.

Dr. Hagen said wellness programs at work are a step in the right direction but not necessarily a cure-all solution. "Is this going to affect the bigger picture? Maybe not. It's more about lifestyle changes, but a company who thinks it's important enough to promote that kind of activity could cause that change."


Olivia Garber: 412-263-1985 or ogarber@post-gazette.com


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