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Is your job making you fat?

Health experts say finding ways to fit in fitness during the workday is an increasingly important strategy in the battle of the bulge.
People with desk jobs may pack on the pounds because they get so little physical activity during the day, fitness experts say.
People with desk jobs may pack on the pounds because they get so little physical activity during the day, fitness experts say.44700.000000 / Getty Images

Like many desk jockeys, Kelly Gilstrap stares at a computer for a living. He's a program manager for Sprint, and while his brain works hard on the job, his body's essentially in idle mode.

Gilstrap, 38, wasn't getting much activity after hours either. So a couple of years ago he decided to try lunchtime workouts at his office gym in Overland Park, Kan. Previously, he'd had a hard time fitting in exercise before or after work. But exercising during his workday is a plan he's been able to stick with.

"It's more than convenient," he says. "You don't have to get in your car. It's right here."

Most workers aren't lucky enough to have a fully equipped 71,000-square-foot fitness facility at the office, but health experts say finding ways to fit in fitness during the workday is an increasingly important strategy in the battle of the bulge.

Given that many people spend a big chunk of their waking hours at work, "your job certainly could be contributing to weight gain," says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise.

An ACE-commissioned study found that, not surprisingly, people whose work is largely conducted while sitting behind a desk, such as secretaries, lawyers and teachers, get little physical activity during the day.

"There's a huge difference in the amount of physical activity people get in different professions," says lead study author John Porcari, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. "There was almost a four-fold difference between the most active and the least active."

In the study, the researchers gave pedometers to 98 workers in 10 different occupations and asked them to wear the devices for three consecutive workdays.

Secretaries logged an average of 4,327 steps, less than half of the often-recommended goal of 10,000 steps a day for optimal health. Teachers got 4,726 steps, lawyers 5,062 and police officers 5,336.

Wanna get moving? Deliver the mail
Mail carriers topped the list of most active workers, with a whopping 18,904 steps a day. Next came custodians with 12,991 steps, restaurant servers with 10,087 steps, factory workers with 9,892, construction workers with 9,646 and nurses with 8,648.

Porcari says most people would likely clock an additional 2,000 steps after work in the course of running errands or doing chores, even if they didn't go to the gym or engage in other purposeful physical activity. Still, many people would come up short of their 10,000 steps.

"If you're basically at a sedentary job, you need to make it a point to get exercise during your leisure time," Porcari says.

That's especially important if you're trying to shed pounds or maintain weight loss, he says. People trying to slim down should aim for an hour of physical activity a day.

Fit in fitness all day
Of course, finding time to work out during the morning rush or at the end of a long day isn't easy for many people. That's why more of us should strive to fit in some fitness during the day, Bryant says.

That doesn't necessarily mean running a couple miles at lunch. "Just look for opportunities to move during the course of the workday," he says.

A few suggestions: hold informal meetings during a walk outside; use the farthest restroom in your building; take a few flights of stairs during your coffee break.

Even standing and pacing in place while talking on the phone helps, Bryant says. So does walking down the hall and talking with a co-worker instead of sending an e-mail. Wearing a pedometer can help you track your progress.

You might also ask human resources about getting an office gym, holding some fitness classes in the conference room or providing incentive programs to help workers shape up. Increasingly, companies are realizing that fit workers mean a healthier bottom line — so workplace fitness is a win for everyone.

"When people are healthy, it's pretty well documented that health-care costs are lower, sick days are fewer and productivity is greater," Porcari says.

Healthy bottom line
Obesity, inactivity and resulting health problems are "really impacting the profits of companies today," says Brenda Loube, president of Corporate Fitness Works, a company in Montgomery Village, Md., which manages corporate fitness centers including the one at Sprint.

Loube says her business is growing precisely because companies find that investing in workers' health pays off.

Gilstrap has lost 28 pounds since he began his at-work exercise program, which includes running at the gym's track or treadmills. He's also been more active in his off hours, competing in triathlons and other races.

And he believes the time he takes away from his desk actually makes him a better worker. He has more energy, thinks more clearly and gets his work done faster.

"The biggest [on-the-job] benefit that I've gotten from working out at work is setting goals and achieving goals," Gilstrap says.

If he can power through an intense hour-long workout, what's the big deal about all those e-mails?

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.