You're a great employee. You whiz through tough work projects and shine during performance reviews. Too bad your shoulders are slouchy (from sitting at your desk too long), your skin is splotchy (lunch, smunch—the break room's greasy potato chips will kill hunger), and your sleep is shoddy (you didn't finish that last work project until 4 a.m.). To help you recognize professional choices that compromise your overall health, here's a list of the most unhealthy work habits:
1. Your footwear. You have a huge office presentation or an important board meeting, so you match your power suit with the perfect power heels. But by the workday's end, you could be trading new-found confidence for some newly formed corns. If you're going to sport your spikes to the office, Dr. A. Holly Johnson, chief of foot and ankle orthopedic surgery at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests bringing in a fall-back pair of shoes. "The key to everything in health is moderation," she says. "Wearing a high heel all day at work, whether it's two inches or four inches, is probably not a good idea. If you're going to be sitting in your office all day, then you should have some flats at your desk. It's fine to wear those heels for a couple of hours, though."
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Another way to combat possible foot strain and pinched toes: Make sure to wear shoes that actually fit. Johnson says many people underestimate the size of their feet. "Wearing the wrong shoe size is going to exacerbate any problem you have," she says. "When you're going to buy new shoes, have the salesperson measure your foot or measure your own foot at home. Over time, a foot gets progressively wider and longer."
2. Your commute. It's a good thing you packed that spare pair of comfortable shoes for the work commute, because chances are, you're going to be travelling for awhile. The average commute is just north of 25 minutes, according to a 2009 report from the American Community Survey. Experts say excessive traffic could lead to stress and reduced sleep, while lengthy car, train, and bus rides result in longer sedentary time and therefore, a higher body mass index, waist circumference, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Over time, a hassled commuter could grapple with heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even kidney failure.
If you live close enough to your office, you might want to swap your bus pass for some sneakers and walk to and from work. Commuters who can't avoid their long and sedentary travel times should also aim to squeeze more physical activity into their daily routine.
3. Your all-nighters. Sometimes it takes longer than an eight-hour workday to complete an assignment, which could cause us to revert to an all-nighter à la school days. And while occasionally missing sleep is more of a nuisance than a serious health concern, it can become an issue if it happens consistently. "We talk about acute sleep deprivation and chronic sleep deprivation," says Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein, the chief medical officer for Sleep HealthCenters in Boston and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "There are some clear effects that go along with not getting enough sleep, and the longer you go, the sleepier you get. Acute sleep deprivation could immediately affect work performance."
"But as you miss more sleep, your cognitive functioning drops," Epstein continues. "You won't be able to think clearly and you won't be able to learn as much. The effect of 24 hours of sleep deprivation on performance is the equivalent of having a blood-alcohol level of 0.10." According to him, one of the dangers of chronic sleep deprivation is that people lose the ability to judge their level of sleep impairment. Receiving one or two hours here or there might make a sleep-deprived worker feel rested temporarily, but ultimately, he or she could still make poor decisions, like getting behind the wheel of a car.
According to Epstein, the only remedy for missing sleep is to sleep, so consider using your lunch break to get some shut-eye. "The best times to be asleep are in the middle of the night, and then 12 hours after that, so in the middle of the afternoon," Epstein says. "If you didn't get enough rest at night, it's easiest to try again at your next peak of sleepiness."
4. Your choice to skip breakfast. You might not feel hungry for breakfast if you work a sunrise shift. Or perhaps your mad dash to make the morning meeting just doesn't leave time for bacon and eggs. Whatever your reason for skipping breakfast, Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian and food and nutrition expert, urges you to change your ways. "By skipping breakfast, you're basically telling your body, 'let's not be able to focus and concentrate, and let's not have energy.'" she says. "Food gives you the calories to boost your energy, and it boosts your blood sugar. You need breakfast to give you that boost after fasting all night. Not doing so compromises your ability to focus and be productive."
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You don't have to get that first meal in right when you wake up, though. Scritchfield suggests you eat sometime within two hours of rising. "Or you could decide to eat a piece of fruit first thing, and then wait until you get in the office to have something else," she says.
Skipping the morning meal could also lead to an afternoon binge. "It sets you up to get hungry, to overeat at lunch, and then to get more tired during the second half of the day," says Scritchfield, who also blogs about nutritional practices at the site Rebeccathinks.com. "It could also lead you to race to the vending machine, where there are poor food choices."
5. Your out-of-the-office lunches. Picking up lunch on-the-go is a nutritional land mine, where choices range from posh and pricey to cheap and carbohydrate-filled. More often that not, you have no idea about the nutrition facts of the food you've grabbed. "The cheaper food is the faster, easier option, and it tends to be loaded with processed carbs," says Scritchfield. Not only are those types of meals fattening, but they'll also zap you of energy.
Your safest, most affordable option would be packing a healthy lunch at home. But if you're going to eat on the run, Scritchfield suggests looking for places that serve minimally processed food. "The energy-producing foods are going to be very rich in vitamins and minerals. You're going to need to meet your veggie targets. If half of your plate isn't vegetables, then you don't have enough," she explains. "Also eat fruits, beans, and lean proteins like fish. And stick to the whole grains for carbohydrates, so try having sweet potatoes, quinoa, or wheat."
6. Your at-your-desk snacking. So you start with a balanced breakfast and take a noon-day break to enjoy a pre-packed and healthy lunch. But you choose to munch on your goodies while sitting in your cubicle. This could cause two problems. One, there are the little crumbs and germs that will miss your mouth and hit the desk and keyboard, and two, you'll be eating amidst days-old crumbs and germs that had previously missed your mouth and hit the desk and keyboard. Gross.
A recent study by the paper products and cleaning solutions company Kimberly-Clark Professional found that computer keyboards are one of the dirtiest spots in a workplace; they're crawling with a molecule known as ATP that is found in most living organisms and which can lead to illness if found in excess. If you want to keep germ ingestion to a minimum, try eating away from your desk as often as possible. If you do snack while sitting, be sure to disinfect your keyboard and the surrounding area both before and after eating.
[Quiz: How Dingy Is Your Workplace?]
7. Your posture. Your deadline is looming and the pressure is mounting, so of course your shoulders are slumping. Practicing poor office ergonomics (in other words, failing to sit properly at your office desk) could lead to muscle strain and fatigue. And forgetting to take breaks from sitting all day could cause poor circulation. "I tell people to think about how they feel after a long car ride," says Dan MacLeod, a professional ergonomist. "Your muscles are achy, you're exhausted, you're wiped out. That's because you've been sitting so long. So you've got to get up and move around. There is no correct posture for an eight-hour work day."
When working in an office, "It's common for people to think they're supposed to sit upright at right angles," MacLeod says. "But there's no science to that. ... All studies show you should actually lean back in a semi-crouched position. ... One of the reasons is when you're leaning back with a good back rest, the weight of your upper body is transferred to that backrest. Sitting upright tends to make you round out your back in the wrong direction."
You should also let your hands rest in a semi-relaxed position when typing. "The optimal posture for the wrist is not straight up and down like holding a bouquet of flowers, and not flat side to side like playing the piano," MacLeod says. "It's actually halfway in between. Your wrists should be positioned similar to driving a car, when you place your hands at the 10 and two position [of a steering wheel]. That way, your hand is slanted forward and a little bit to the side."