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20 Ways to Get Healthier at Work

Here are 20 simple tactics to lower your stress, boost your fitness and get healthier at your job:

take a break

Workplace stress is hitting Americans hard. A recent survey shows that two-thirds of U.S. workers reported extremely high stress levels in the past year. Thirty percent said they were too stressed to be effective at their job for at least five days in 2011. Don’t accept stress as just another part of your job.

There are several strategies you can — and should — use to bring your levels down. You might think every minute counts, but taking short breaks between tasks can actually help you stay focused and productive. Think of them as mini rewards for completing one job before moving onto the next. Taking a step back can also help you put your workload in perspective. If you’re afraid of things falling through the cracks, keep a to-do list or use an electronic task manager so you’re not constantly worrying about assignments you may have forgotten. Also, make the most of your downtime. Instead of zoning out in front of the TV, schedule activities that cheer you up, like having lunch with a friend or watching a funny movie. Having things you look forward to outside of work can help combat burnout.

master new skills

“No pain, no gain” may be a fallacy when it comes to working out, but research shows it’s good advice when seeking happiness. According to a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies, working hard to master a new skill, though it causes significant momentary stress, leads to greater long-term contentment. Setbacks and frustration often cause many of us to give up on our goals. But, when it’s for something we care about, pushing ourselves to overcome obstacles helps us achieve more satisfaction in life. Even if your dream feels impossible, go for it anyway.

take the stairs

Skip the elevator and take the stairs. According to a study in the journal Preventive Medicine, our expanding waistlines may have a lot to do with our on-the-job activities — or, rather, lack thereof. Researchers found that workers move significantly less during the workday than we used to. Fitting small bursts of exercise into your day, such as taking the stairs or walking during your breaks, could make it easier to meet daily fitness recommendations, say the authors. A 2010 study of sedentary workers found that using the stairs at work can help improve cardiovascular fitness, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

take control of your stress!

Findings from the 2010 Stress in America survey show that the majority of Americans are living with moderate or high levels of stress.
You don’t have to live like that! Stress Free Now is a clinically-based, six-week online program that contains the tools you need to reduce stress, and improve your well-being and your health.

sneak in a power nap

Feel like putting your head down on your desk for a few minutes? Even if your boss considers it slacking, we don’t. Research shows that fighting your internal clock can decrease job performance. When your energy starts to slip, powering down for a 15- to 20-minute nap can help increase reaction time, boost critical thinking skills and rejuvenate you. The more hours we go without sleep, the more sluggish our minds become. Just be sure to keep it brief: Dozing for more than 30 minutes can leave you in an even groggier state and potentially impact your sleep quality and sleep length at night. And if you do decide to rest your head on your desk to catch a few zzz’s, just be careful not to drool on your PowerPoint presentation.

make friends at work

Connecting with your colleagues could add years to your life. According to a study in the journal Health Psychology, working alongside people you consider friendly and helpful is associated with a smaller risk of all-cause mortality than working with people you don’t feel supported by. Other research has shown that having a strong network of friends can help keep us healthy and young — but having 500 friends on Facebook doesn’t count. Superficial connections can’t stave off loneliness or health problems the way close social ties can. On-the-job relationships are just one way people can stay connected. If you’re a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person, try to take a few minutes each day to establish a bond with your office mates. Taking periodic breaks from work to socialize can help you decompress from a stressful workday — which is also good for your health.

leave work at the office

Americans have cut back a little on time they previously spent relaxing, according to the 2010 American Time Use Survey. The survey shows that work-life changes since 2009 affected women more than men: Women worked more hours overall than they did two years ago, especially on weekends. Now a survey from the University of Rochester shows how that affects health. From Friday night to Sunday afternoon, study participants were in a better mood, showed greater vitality, and had fewer aches and pains, among other things, a phenomenon known as “the weekend effect.” Why such positives only on weekends? The research explains that having the freedom to choose one’s activities and having opportunities to spend time with loved ones are top reasons. The researchers suggest working some of the weekend effect into your workweek: Make time for friends and loved ones, participate in a hobby, and do your best to relax.

learn good sleep habits

You probably don’t need a scientific study to tell you that insomnia and work don’t mix. And yet there is one: the America Insomnia Survey, which used a national sample of 7,428 employed health plan subscribers. The results, which were reported in the journal SLEEP, clearly showed that insomnia is associated with substantial workplace costs — to the tune of $63.2 billion a year! Between the cost of absenteeism for the employer and health care costs, the numbers add way up. And that’s not including the cost to the employee — lost wages and even losing a job. The researchers recommend trials to test if some of these costs could be recovered with insomnia disease-management programs. In the meantime, what can you do to ensure quantity and quality sleep and fewer lost workdays?

update your résumé

Being unemployed for a long time can take its toll on a person’s mental health, as anyone who’s been out of work knows. That’s why taking the first position you’re offered can be tempting — especially when the bills are piling up. But if it’s not a job you want, you may want to hold out for something better. Research shows that taking a job that’s beneath you is even worse for your emotional health than being unemployed. According to the study, demanding jobs that offer little control, support or reward are bad for your well-being. Even though we all love to gripe about hating our jobs, research shows that we benefit from them, because they provide a sense of purpose and the opportunity for friendships. If your job is draining your emotional reserves, it may be time to update your résumé and call the headhunter.

forget sitting still

Fidget your way to fitness. Moving around constantly throughout the day can help combat a sedentary lifestyle. Researchers have found that incidental activities like walking to the water cooler or fidgeting can have a cumulative effect on one’s cardiovascular fitness — provided one moves quickly enough and often enough. Try to include short bursts of activity, like climbing stairs, walking briskly around the office or cleaning up around the house, throughout the day. As an added incentive, clip on a pedometer to see how many steps you take daily. If you haven’t met your quota of 10,000 steps by the end of the day, enlist friends or family members to join you for a summer’s evening walk or bike ride.

go green

Get a nature fix (without going outside)! Buy a plant for your desk — it reduces fatigue and discomfort and improves performance and mood. Interacting with Mother Nature is uplifting to your spirit and soothing to your nerves, but it’s harder to do during the cold winter months. To continue enjoying nature’s health-boosting effects, invest in a plant for your desk (or wherever you spend the majority of your time). A Japanese study found that mood and performance improved among female students who performed a cognitive task in a room with a plant in it, and a Norwegian study found that workers with plants in their office reported 20 percent to 30 percent fewer physical symptoms — including fatigue, cough and dry throat — than workers with no plants.

be thankful

Research shows giving thanks improves mood — even at the office. The key to workplace happiness: Remember what you like about your job. Some days that’s not so easy, but reflecting on its benefits is exactly what will make us more appreciative of the daily grind. Expressing gratitude helps us cope and stay positive. That doesn’t mean you should try to be so blissed out that you ignore problems. Complain constructively. Use a journal to brainstorm solutions — even when you don’t feel like it.

stay on the ball

You might not associate a large, inflatable, bouncy ball with improved productivity, but using what the fitness industry calls a stability ball as a desk chair can keep your core muscles and your mind engaged. In fact, a rapidly growing number of schools across the United States have replaced their traditional chairs with stability balls, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times — the physical challenge of balancing on the balls helps keep otherwise easily distracted students mentally engaged. You needn’t be a child to benefit; sitting on a balance ball requires your core muscles to engage and grow stronger, and this minor physical challenge gives your brain enough of a task that it becomes more alert.

get up, stand up

From sitting at a desk all day to plopping down in front of the TV at night, most of us lead a very sedentary lifestyle. Even if we work out regularly, all this downtime takes a toll on our health. Turns out, people who sit on their duff all day without taking breaks are at greater risk of a slew of health issues than those who get up and walk around regularly. Sitting for prolonged periods of time is linked to larger waistlines, higher blood pressure, lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, increased levels of triglycerides, and higher levels of inflammation. And that even goes for gym rats. Yikes. According to the study’s researchers, 30 to 60 minutes of activity a day can’t undo the effects of sitting for eight to 12 hours at a time. But standing up and walking around periodically throughout the day can help. They recommend standing during phone calls and meetings, walking over to a person’s desk instead of e-mailing them, and making frequent visits to the water cooler and bathroom.

break for lunch

Got more work than you can handle? Resist the urge to hunker down and skip lunch. Taking breaks increases productivity — and lowers stress. When you’re under the gun, pushing yourself harder to get everything off your plate may sound like a good idea, but unrealistic deadlines will only stress you out more. It is also the quickest path to mental exhaustion. On-the-job burnout isn’t just bad for morale — it can hurt your heart. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic work stress can cause inflammation that leads to cardiovascular disease. Instead, take a step back from your work. Get some fresh air or call a friend. Remind yourself that even if you can’t control how much work you have, stressing about it won’t get it done any sooner.

step outside

Your schedule is jam-packed and there’s not enough time for a full-fledged workout. May as well hang up your shoes and try again tomorrow, right? Science says no — moderate exercise is just as effective at preventing cardiovascular disease as more vigorous workouts, according to a Harvard study. Keep a pair of comfortable shoes in your desk drawer and head out for a lunchtime walk on those days you don’t have the time or energy for your regular routine.

laugh it up

Heading to a brainstorming session at work? Goof off a little first. A study published in the journal Psychological Science has found that being in a good mood boosts creative thinking. And, say the study’s authors, doing things at work that put us in a happier frame of mind shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a waste of time. Watching funny videos, for instance, helped people perform better on a series of tests that required creative problem solving. Of course, that doesn’t mean your boss will agree with you on this one. Lift your mood before work or during your lunch hour by listening to humorous podcasts or hanging out with the office clown. Besides boosting creativity, laughter is also a great way to relieve stress.

think positively

If the thought of an upcoming speech or presentation has you quaking in your boots, don’t resign yourself to giving a subpar performance. A recent Harvard study found that in students taking the GRE, those who were told their nervousness would improve their performance got better scores than the group who wasn’t told anything about their jitters. Before you embark on your anxiety-producing task, imagine your anxiety as a positive force that’s heightening your alertness and focus, and prepare to shine.

choose wisely

Whether you’re a CEO looking to improve employee morale and productivity, or you’re a nine-to-fiver trying to find a job that will bring you less stress, take note that companies that offer flex time and on-site child care to parents will give you all of those things. That’s according to a Northeastern University poll of 4,000 working parents. If you’re trying to choose between two jobs, one of which offers parental perks, don’t underestimate its ability to improve your quality of life. The study found that people who worked at family-friendly firms had fewer headaches and stress-related illnesses. Meanwhile, those at companies without those benefits were 62 percent more likely to experience job-related sleep issues and three times as likely to be treated for high blood pressure and diabetes.

surf the web

All work and no play may make you dull in more than one sense of the word: A 2009 University of Melbourne study found that workers who engaged in frivolous Web surfing — for less than 20 percent of the total time they were at work — were 9 percent more productive than those who didn’t. The researchers theorize the brain can work more effectively after it has had a chance to take a break from concentrating. If your boss catches you watching videos on YouTube, just tell her that you’re doing it for the good of the company.

This article was published in iVillage and written by Cleveland Clinic Wellness Editors.

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