Are You a Work Potato?

BY Jason Kane  May 3, 2013 at 12:07 PM EST

Two-thirds of American office workers experience pain on the job and a quarter expect it. Not from physical exertion but the opposite — too much hunching, sitting, clicking and staring at screens. According to a recent study from the American Osteopathic Association, the average “work potato” misses the equivalent of three days on the job each year simply because they don’t move enough.

Dr. Rob Danoff, an osteopathic family physician in Philadelphia and a spokesman for the association’s “Break Through Your Pain” campaign, answers our top three questions below.

It’s a pretty good phrase, “work potato.” Who qualifies?

Danoff: Anyone who sits most of the time at work. Whether you’re an executive or you’re answering phones, we found that over 70 percent of people in this poll – which is over 1,000 people – sat five or more hours per day. That means we’re sitting for almost a quarter of our waking lives and that’s really bad for our health. It can lead to weight gain and deconditioning of your muscles. And if your desk isn’t arranged properly, it can also lead to low back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and wrist pain. If you don’t have a comfortable chair or you don’t have armrests, that’s going to put more stress on your shoulders and your neck muscles, and also put more pressure on your arm and your wrist.

Your study found that a lot of it’s tied to extreme laziness. What did you find?

Danoff: Here’s something that’s really disturbing — over 2 in 5 would not even consider getting up from their desk if they needed to talk to their colleagues. They’ll text, they’ll call, they’ll email, but they won’t get up. Nine in 10 of the people we surveyed said that they would be willing to do stretches or similar exercises during work but they choose not to do it. They just sit.

So what can “work potatoes” do to improve their health?

Danoff: A few things:

  • Get up. Every half hour, get up. Stand, stretch, roll your shoulders, maybe walk over to one of your colleagues, walk over to get paper from the printers. Every half hour. Some people might say, ‘Oh, it’s wasting time.’ But no, because if you’re in pain from sitting or you’re uncomfortable, you’re less productive.

  • No. 2, make sure you have a good chair that is comfortable, that has lower back support and that leans back a little bit for your upper back. This way, you’re leaning slightly back. Also make sure you have good armrests and that your hands are flat and even with your keyboard so you’re not hurting your wrists.

  • You want to make sure you have both feet flat on the floor. The longer you cross your legs, the more lower back pain you can have. Crossing your legs puts so much strain on your back that it’s almost like wearing high heel shoes for the whole day.

  • You also want to keep the computer keyboard straight ahead, with the top of the monitor at eye level, so you’re not straining your neck or moving it up or down or side to side.

  • Finally, make sure to avoid the mousetrap. By that, I mean make sure your wrist isn’t up or down when you’re typing on the keyboard. You want it to be even with the rest of your arm, which is resting on an armrest.

If you have pain at work, don’t just mask it with taking pills. On the American Osteopathic Association’s website, we have a desk makeover section to help you arrange your desk and tips to help you decrease your pain. There’s also something there to help you describe your pain to your doctor so they can help you rearrange what you do to try to prevent it. Because if you don’t stop the pattern of pain, it will become chronic. And once that pain pattern sets in, it’s hard to break.

This conversation was lightly edited for clarity. Photo by GSO Images.