As someone who has been self-employed since before the Great Recession, I know that economic disruptions can spell trouble for independent contractors. So, when the pandemic started, I took on extra projects to hedge against what might be ahead. After more than a year and a half of spending far too much time at my desk, I chalked up the shortness of breath I was feeling on a weekend trip to being out of shape.
I was wrong. I landed in the intensive care unit with pulmonary embolisms.
I feel very fortunate to have survived. But my doctors told me, in no uncertain terms, that some of the bad habits I had developed needed to change—for both my physical and mental health. It starts with simple steps most of us can do that will make a real difference, especially if we have desk jobs. Here are six key changes I’m incorporating. (Of course, always check with your doctor before starting any new diet or exercise regimen.)
1. Prioritizing hydration
Proper hydration may help reduce sugar and sodium intake, improve cognitive performance, and even help prevent heart failure. But you don’t necessarily need to default to the well-worn “eight glasses of water a day” advice, says Cordelia W. Carter, orthopedic surgeon and director of the Center for Women’s Sports Health at NYU Langone Health. The amount of water you need depends on a variety of factors ranging from your activity level to the types of foods you typically eat. Some foods, like watermelon, celery, and strawberries are more than 90% water.
It’s a good idea to check with your doctor about your own personal needs; just know that “it doesn’t mean you have to fill those 120-ounce bottles and drink all day,” she says. Start by having water nearby and drinking when you’re thirsty, she says.
2. Taking breaks
Despite what we know about how taking breaks is important for our energy levels, productivity, and cognition, remote workers are skimping on time away from the desk. The latest survey from workplace-hygiene brand Tork found that 91% of workers reported working as much or more during the pandemic. Almost 40% occasionally, rarely, or never take breaks during their workday, and roughly one in five feel judged when they step away from their desks at all.
That’s not good, says workplace wellness expert Laura Putnam, author of Workplace Wellness that Works: 10 Steps to Infuse Well-Being and Vitality into Any Organization. She says we need to remind ourselves that breaks are essential. Even getting up from your desk for a few minutes makes a difference. “My net productivity will go up; I’ll be able to think better, more clearly, more creatively,” she says. If you find yourself getting stuck at your desk, schedule in breaks or set a timer to remind yourself to get up every 60 to 90 minutes, she says.
3. Moving more
And be sure to use some of those breaks to move. “Exercise is medicine, both preventative and therapeutic,” Dr. Carter says. It’s a good idea to shoot for 30 to 60 minutes “of a moderate-to-vigorous physical activity that you enjoy,” she says, provided your doctor approves. But here’s a tip that athletes know: To avoid overuse injuries, don’t do the same thing every day. Build in some strength, flexibility, and cardio training. For example, mix up walking or running, weight training, and yoga or stretching.
In addition to your “exercise prescription,” get in the habit of shifting positions at your desk every 30 minutes or so, she says. Sitting in the same position for long periods of time can lead to strain. Shifting your position and adding in a bit of stretching while you’re at it, can help prevent that issue. And if you’re able to stand for a while, doing some of your work standing up can also help you move more, says Delene Musielak, a board-certified physician in internal medicine, pediatrics, and obesity medicine. While a standing desk might not be in the budget for everyone, consider finding a comfortable spot where you can be on your feet when doing videoconferences, for example, or making phone calls.
Also, if you’re traveling by car, plane, or train for long stretches, be sure to move around, or at least stand up and stretch, every hour or so. Sitting for long periods can slow blood flow, increasing the risk of deep vein thrombosis.
4. Finding calm
The pandemic has been tough on everyone, particularly on U.S. workers. Gallup’s 2021 State of the Workplace report found that 45% of people said the pandemic has affected their lives “a lot” and 57% experienced stress daily. So, it’s important to have a tool kit to help deal with that stress, Putnam says. Whether it’s doing some deep breathing a few times a day, calling a friend, having a laugh, or starting a creative practice, find what gets you feeling like yourself again—and do it. Unrelenting stress can be a quick route to burnout and other mental health issues.
It’s important to listen to your body, Dr. Carter adds. When you feel your shoulders tightening or your heart rate going up, recognize what’s going on and, if you can, take action to relieve the stress.
5. Setting work boundaries
The number of hours many of us work has increased during the pandemic. It’s so easy to wander back to your workspace at the end of the day and get a head start on a project or finish up work for a deadline. Overwork—and the amount of time we’re seated—contributes to increasing stress levels. Set your work hours, and do your best to stick to them.
Putnam relays a tip from a colleague: When you’re working from home, try employing a “fake commute” at the end of the workday to signal to yourself that it’s time to disconnect from work. “We can literally do what Mr. Rogers did—change out our shoes and clothes into more comfortable ones,” she says. Then take a walk or find another ritual you’d enjoy at the end of the workday. Such cues can help us reinforce boundaries, she says.
6. Minding medical care
During the early months of the pandemic, more than 40% of people said they skipped medical care, according to the American Medical Association. If you’ve missed your annual checkup, recommended screenings, or other recommended care, it’s time to start prioritizing your health by reaching out to your doctor and other providers to see what you you’ve missed. Even simple scans and blood work can reveal important issues that are easier to treat when caught early.
Of course, there are other tenets of good health—eating right and getting enough sleep, for example—but attempting a full-scale lifestyle makeover can be a recipe for failure, says Dr. Musielak. Instead, focus on one or two goals and work on integrating them into your workday. As they become habits, “progressively add another goal to your daily routine,” she says. These steps can actually help you feel better—and be more productive, too.
Correction: An earlier version of this article accidentally misstated the data from Tork’s survey.