Before I gave myself an early retirement from my 23-year career as a corporate litigator, I was the hiring partner for the branch office I’d founded and managed. In that role, I witnessed a steady stream of in-shape recent law school graduates adjust to the rigors of the “real world.” Almost without exception, over the course of a few years, I observed taut stomachs morph into jiggly pot bellies protruding over too-tight belts. Their gym routines had disappeared, and their healthy eating had devolved into grab-n-go eaten at their desk as they succumbed to the pressure of billable hours.
I’d fought the same battle for many years, and was able to stay in semi-decent shape only because I realized early on that continuing to work out was indispensable to maintaining my mental health. I was a five-mile-a-day runner at the time I landed my first real law job. When I started practicing, I found the stress to be daunting, and immediately decided that no matter what it took, I was going to find a way to get physical almost every day. I hearkened back to the fact that my running routine had saved my sanity during the harrowing bar prep experience.
Of course, in order to rack up the requisite hours and turn in my briefs in a timely fashion, I had to make compromises to sneak in my exercise. So, I was the first one in the office every morning and spent the majority of my weekends at my desk. But, I prided myself that I was able to get to an aerobics class, cobble together a running route, or heft some free weights in the gym. My favorite stress reliever was to go to the batting cages and swing just as hard as I could. I probably shouldn’t reveal this banality, but I had a “difficult” boss, and I reveled in imagining that the ball I was swinging at was his head. Chalk it up to stress relief.
For Starters You Need to Get Up and Move During Your Workday
You may have read that “sitting is the new smoking.” While that sounds fairly outrageous, solid scientific research is behind the slogan.
The studies show that sitting can be as bad for your health as smoking. Spending hours sitting at a desk each day can lead to cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In fact, sitting for more than three hours a day can even shave two years off your life. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that men who sit six or more hours a day are 50% more likely to die from chronic disease, compared with those who sit three hours or fewer. This shortened life expectancy holds true even if you go to the gym in the morning and refrain from dangerous habits like smoking.
The American Heart Association has raised awareness of this risk by issuing an advisory that warns that sedentary behavior, including staring at a computer screen for hours on end, is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Statistics show that most adults spend between six and eight hours a day sitting in a chair or lounging on their couch, causing their bodily functions to slow down, somewhat like a computer in save mode.
Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., author of several studies on sedentary behavior and a professor at the University of Houston, cautions: “I like to remind people that 30 minutes a day of exercise can’t immunize you from what you do the other 23-and-a-half hours.” What most of us don’t realize is that “Our bodies were built to move all day. They weren’t built to be idle and stationary with a metabolic rate similar to a person in a coma. When we’re depriving ourselves of that kind of essential muscular activity throughout the day, very potent things happen inside our bodies. You can’t impact those same cellular processes by going to a gym and doing artificial exercises for 30 minutes.”
Technology to the rescue! Several free smartphone apps will harass you into moving every hour, or at some other reasonable interval. I have an Apple Watch and it sends me a “Time to Stand” reminder and vibrates every 50 minutes to remind me that I need to get out of my chair. Most of the time, except when I’m in a meeting or having a root canal, I obey. If you have an iPhone, download “Move” or “Stand Up! The Work Break Timer.” Android users, try “Big Stretch Reminder” or “Workrave.”
Then Start Thinking “Exer-Snacks”
Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve slacked off on your exercise routine. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a whopping 80% of U.S. adults don’t meet the minimal exercise guidelines—a paltry 2.5 hours per week of aerobic exercise and some minimal resistance training twice a week. Not exactly a big time commitment.
It’s common knowledge that exercise is the magic health pill. It helps with weight maintenance, keeps many diseases at bay, promotes restful sleep and reduces stress. It even revitalizes your brain health and helps ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
So, why don’t we take the time to exercise? Has a lethargy plague broken out? No. We just need an attitude adjustment.
Incorporate Exer-Snacks into Your Work Day
I go with the theory that a little something is a big improvement over nothing. Our exercise mindset is typically a single fixed routine. For example, your habit may be a one hour visit to the gym. Or maybe you lace up your shoes and hit the road for three miles. Inevitably, stuff happens and we find ourselves unable to squeeze in our prescribed exercise routine. The result? We do nothing at all. We tell ourselves we’ll make it a priority tomorrow.
Attitude adjustment: Think “exer-snacks.” Studies have found that brief bouts of exercise, as little as 10 minutes, rather than a sustained workout of 30 minutes, actually produce superior health benefits, such a controlling blood sugar and hypertension. It may be that we try a little harder with a closer finish line. And most of us find the short stints more enjoyable (or at least tolerable) than the marathon sessions.
Yes, busy lawyers work a lot of hours. But, you can cut out a little coffee room chatter or social networking and find time during the day to go outside and eke out a 10 minute walk. My advice is to set an alarm on your phone to make sure it actually happens. Remember that something is always better than nothing.
Create opportunities for exer-snacks:
- Take a short break and walk around the block
- Walk to your take-out restaurant to pick up lunch
- Pace instead of sitting during a conference call
- Talk a walk after you eat dinner
- Host a walking meeting
- Walk the airport corridors while waiting for takeoff
Think Outside the Gym
When we decide it’s finally time to get in shape, what do we do? We typically join a gym, and maybe even hire a personal trainer. Despite our good intentions, 67% of people who have gym memberships never use them. Clearly, forking over an average of $58 per month doesn’t do the trick. The truth is, a lot of people hate going to the gym and look for excuses to avoid setting foot in their pre-paid health club.
Attitude adjustment: “Think outside the gym.” Broaden your horizons about what qualifies as “exercise.” The idea is to move your body regularly throughout the day. Lose the idea that the gym is the only place where exercise happens. A killer workout is not the goal. Rather, consistency is the key to staying healthy. There are endless ways to get your body moving. Find things that you like to do. Don’t force yourself to walk on the treadmill if it’s your version of hell on earth. You won’t stick with it for long.
Let Me Count the Ways to “Exercise”
- Go dancing
- Dig in the garden
- Clean your house
- Take a class at a specialty gym: yoga, Pilates, kickboxing
- Go for a hike
- Ride your bicycle
With exer-snacks and frequent body movement, you will get healthy!
About the Author
Lorie Eber is the founder of Lorie Eber Wellness Coaching in Orange County, Cal., and provides one-on-one customized coaching to help people adopt healthier lifestyles, through better eating, exercise and stress reduction. Contact her on Twitter @EberLorie.