Is Your Computer Killing You?

I know exactly what you’re doing right now. You’re likely sitting in your computer chair, on your couch, or, if you’re being especially lazy, lying in bed and staring at your computer screen. You’ve probably been there for a several minutes, if not an hour or two. You’re even possibly at work, reading LockerGnome while stuck in a cubicle for a few more hours. I’ve spent several years prior to writing for blogs in cubicles and, between 9-5, there’s not a lot to do at work but sit. Unfortunately, while all that sitting and staring at a computer screen may be helping to keep your bank account healthy (or at least out of the red), it may be slowly killing you.

While simply staring at a computer screen is bad for your eyes (especially in the dark), using your computer all day has now been shown to produce other deadly effects — and may be slowly killing you. In a recent study by by Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, published recently in Diabetes Care (a publication of the American Diabetes Association), sitting down for long periods of time without movement can lead to an increased risk of diabetes. As sedentary cubicle dwellers sit at their desks for hours and hours without getting up to go for a walk to get lunch, coffee, or even just wander around the office for a few minutes, they reduce their ability to control their glucose and insulin levels. Overweight office workers and other types of employees that sit for long periods of time (like drivers and call center staff) are even more at risk for deadly diseases caused by using a computer all day.

Is Your Computer Killing You?Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute found that simply spacing out sitting time with frequent activity breaks can easily reduce the risk of getting diabetes from sitting at your desk and using a computer all day without moving. According to Baker’s website, “Repeated spikes in glucose, or blood sugar, are known to contribute to a number of negative health outcomes, including hardening of the arteries and cardiovascular disease. Insulin is important, because it plays a key role in controlling blood sugar levels.” When these sugar levels get out of control, people are at greater risk of contracting diabetes. Diabetes can be caused by too little insulin, resistance to insulin, or both. People with diabetes have high blood sugar because their body cannot move sugar into fat, liver, and muscle cells to be stored for energy.

Your computer can also contribute to other deadly diseases including heart disease. Lead researcher, Associate Professor David Dunstan, says: “When we eat, we get rises in blood glucose. With larger and more frequent rises in blood glucose, we gradually accumulate damage to the walls of our veins and arteries. This increases our susceptibility to heart disease. So, we want to minimise these rises in order to improve our health outcomes.”

However, he says that in his study that mimicked the typical office environment with those who worked in cubicles, participants who broke up their day with regular activity breaks “showed up to 30 percent improvement in the body’s response to a meal containing glucose.” This type of activity doesn’t even require a brisk walk down the street for lunch; it can just be light activity, just as wandering around the office or a slightly longer walk to the bathroom. (I’m personally a fan of taking the stairs to the bathroom up or down a floor if you work in a larger office building. Not only is it easy yet good for you to take even just one flight of stairs, but exploring other areas of your building can break up the monotony of your office environment and perhaps introduce you to new people, too.)

Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute also notes that this same research applies to those who work at home. Though telecommuting may seem like it gives employees more freedom to roam around and create their own flexible schedule, the reality for many people who work at home is that they, too, tend to sit in one place for long periods of time. (I often find myself surprised after focusing for hours on a project that the sun has set and the room is suddenly dark.) It’s critical for anyone who uses computers for long periods of time to routinely get up and move to keep their muscles from, as Dunstan says, “sleeping.” He explains: “When we’re up and moving, we’re contracting muscles and it appears that these frequent contractions throughout the day are beneficial for helping to regulate the body’s metabolic processes.” Keeping your metabolism high is a key component of maintaining your overall health; alternatively, a low metabolism can contribute to deadly diseases. For those who work at home, consider taking conference calls while walking around the block or go the gym in the middle of the day. Setting a timer to get up from the computer every 45 minutes (such as on the :45 of every hour) is one of my personal habits and a great routine for those who have control of their own schedule.

If you’re the type who does sit and stare at your computer all day, don’t worry; you don’t need to go out and buy (or make) a standing treadmill desk or commit to a personal trainer to offset the associated dangers of working in front a computer all day, every day. Dunstan’s research ultimately found that simply standing up and moving occasionally throughout the day was beneficial enough to prevent the deadly consequences of using your computer all day otherwise. (However, if you do decide to build that treadmill desk, we’re not stopping you — here at LockerGnome, we personally think it’s a great idea and it’s one option we’ve even considered ourselves.)

How do you cope with sitting at a desk all day? What tricks or tips do you have for other people who constantly use a computer? Share your thoughts in the comments.

CC image of ambulance via ibison4.

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Kelly Clay, author of Blog Without Boundaries, is a freelance writer and lifestyle advisor.