Making the office work for you

Being on the work treadmill takes on a whole new meaning in the case of Jackie Frank, editor and publisher of Marie Claire magazine. Sweating it out on her private office treadmill, the multi-tasking Frank conducts editorial meetings or holds discussions with individual staff members while squeezing a workout into her packed day.

"I can focus best when I'm on it. There are no distractions: phone calls, emails or tweets," she says.

Frank admits, however, that towards the end of last year her treadmill began "gathering dust".

"My new year's resolution is to get back into the routine."

Most of us can't score our own office treadmill, but much can still be done to improve workplace wellness.

Physiotherapist Jane Parry from Sydney's Bay Active Physio visits offices to carry out ergonomic assessments, followed by recommendations for improvements.

One pain-in-the-backside issue crops up surprisingly often. "Many men keep a wallet in their back trousers pocket. If they're sitting on it all day, this elevates one buttock cheek above the other which can lead to lower back pain."

The answer? "Simply moving the wallet!" Parry says.

Ideally, a workstation assessment should take place as part of the orientation of a new employee. "If the workstation isn't set up correctly, then typically, at around three months into the job, problems such as neck and arm pain can emerge," Parry says.


"Take, for instance, a person who is 185cm tall. They should sit in a different chair to a 153cm person; its back should be high to support the shoulders, and there needs to be extra length in the seat pan."

It's a no-brainer that computer use contributes significantly to health issues, yet sometimes it only takes minor modifications to alleviate issues. "The best seated position is for knees and hips to be at 90 degrees. A shorter woman may need a footstool, whereas a taller man mightn't require one.

"Ensure that the keyboard and mouse aren't too far forward. Bring the mouse next to the keyboard towards the front of the desk to avoid strain on the neck and shoulder muscles."

And, for laptop users, Parry emphasises that a monitor-riser is essential.

While the benefits of improved workstation ergonomics are important, there are other significant issues increasingly being recognised; chief amongst these is the sheer amount of screen time many of us willingly expose ourselves to.

Research Professor Paul Taylor, director of the Body- Brain Performance Institute, recently provided a raft of recommendations for the Asia Pacific-Japan headquarters of SAP, a global software company.

To link all four levels of the company's new Singapore base, Taylor recommended stairs instead of lifts (except for one disability elevator) in order to get workers moving. He also suggested an area devoted to vibration plates. "These reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. The body gets a good workout but one doesn't sweat," he says.

Additionally, there are high desks - sans chairs - in meeting rooms to encourage standing rather than sitting, and each floor has a chill–out garden. One incorporates a reflexology pathway.

Yet despite researchers having long known that getting at least half an hour of moderate activity each day can reduce rates of chronic illnesses, delay ageing and improve mental acuity, it's only recently that studies have suggested that prolonged sitting is an independent risk factor for obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular health.

Professor Adrian Bauman of the University of Sydney points out that otherwise active people who walk to the office, swim or play regular sport before or after work, but who stay seated for the rest of the day, can still be at risk of these diseases.

Bauman suggests some simple preventative measures: "Just moving your large muscle groups can be beneficial," he says. "Stand up for phone calls and if possible, have meetings while standing or even walking."

Adjustable work surfaces are another option, allowing alternation between sitting and standing positions. Electronic height adjustment enables hot desk-sharing situations.

The Locus is an innovative workstation that has just gained an award at the US 2012 National Ergonomics Conference. Encouraging a leaning posture halfway between standing and sitting, it's less tiring than standing yet more energising than sitting. A saddle-shaped seat with a pivoting leg and bent ply base ensures constant small movements of the legs and torso. A height-adjustable desk complements the seat.

With the get-up message gaining traction, it's likely that within 10 years many offices will have a different layout with fewer opportunities for prolonged sitting. "The human body isn't designed to sit for eight hours a day," Parry ssays. "In Japan, some companies set alarms to signify it's time to do stretches."

Vimcore is a software application created with support from the University of NSW's Venture Incubator Space. "It's a social platform that makes being healthy easier for employees by providing articles, programs and recipes composed by health professionals," says lead developer Tyler Atwell. "It's also pitched at companies, providing a management tool that gives recognition, praise and rewards for healthy behaviour."

It's free for employees and currently companies can trial it for free.

Activity monitors called Fitbits are the New Big Thing in the US. A tiny device tracks your daily number of steps taken and kilojoules burned. The data is synced to your smartphone, challenging and encouraging wearers to walk more.