If sitting is the new smoking, then what replaced the smoke break?
The shadow side of an 8-hour workday is glowering back at the medical community from behind its swivel chair. You’ve probably heard it: sitting is the new smoking. Anatomically and intellectually, sitting for long stretches of time impedes our optimal selves – and our optimal workforce.
New styles of yoga developed specifically to counteract sitting are becoming more common. With 30-minute no-sweat classes available from companies like Awake Corporate Yoga, time dedicated to “mindfulness breaks” in the form of meditation or yoga is made back in spades when employees return to their desks. A growing body of research supports the claim that hosting on-site yoga as a break from workplace routine will not only boost productivity in the hours following, but help to set the tone for a healthy company culture.
Move for Your Mind
Have you ever felt foggy at work? When we sit still, it’s not just our muscles that move less. Blood flow and circulation in our joints, spine, and brain slows down, inhibiting crucial functions such as the flow of oxygen, nutrients, and hormones. For workers aiming to be productive, effective, and continually creative, these organic processes are key.
Luckily, you don't need to quit and become a yoga teacher to get creative juices flowing, nor do you have to take up HIIT training at lunch hour. A study presented to the American College of Sports Medicine, for instance, found that workers who spent 30–60 minutes at lunch exercising reported an average performance boost of 15 percent. A yoga-specific study from the University of Illinois found that a single, 20-minute session of Hatha yoga significantly improved participants' speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control, two measures of brain function associated with the ability to maintain focus and take in, retain and use new information.
In the yoga-specific study, performance scores after a yoga session trumped performance of the same participants after running on a treadmill for the same amount of time. Neha Gothe was a graduate student when she led the study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gothe now is a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. "It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," Gothe said. "The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities."
Move for your Body
The physiological challenges of working long hours at a desk are even more well-documented than the mental health concerns. Our body is magnificent at adapting. Particularly in the shoulders and hips, our muscles shorten or lengthen to accommodate life at a desk. Over time, this unnatural posture wreaks havoc on our body, almost justifying the melodramatic quip, “sitting is the new smoking.”
The practice of yoga is uniquely suited to combat back problems associated with sitting. Mindful flexion and extension of the entire body, strength building in the upper back and abdominals, and targeted stretching of the hamstrings and hip flexors all help to relieve tightness and pressure.
In one study conducted by a Local Government Agency in the U.K., participants were provided with an 8-week program of gentle yoga that included movement, breath-work, and visualization. At the outset of the program, 10 participants reported back pain in the yoga group. At the end of the program, only 4 participants in the yoga group reported feeling back pain.
The body of reputable studies on the subject of yoga's tangible benefits is modest, but growing. In one 2016 study conducted by the Weill Cornell Medical center, medical students were given a 6-week yoga and meditation program. Self-assessment survey results, before and after, showed a significant improvement in feelings of peace, focus, and endurance.
The 2016 Yoga in America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance draws in the big picture:
Workplace is the Right Place for Yoga
It’s up to company leadership and executives to establish a culture that encourages movement and mindfulness as an integral part of the workday. Despite widespread awareness of the effects of sitting on longevity and productivity, fewer than half of employees take even a basic lunch break away from their desk on an average day. According to the same study, conducted in 2012 by LinkedIn and Right Management, 20 percent of employees surveyed eat at their desks, and 13 percent seldom or never take time for lunch at all.
Most Americans spend more time at work than they do sleeping. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports most adults clock in nearly 9 hours at work or work-related activities Monday to Friday. Work is a necessary and in many cases rewarding part of people lives, yet the pressure to be present, productive, to push the needle forward each day, and to continually be thinking creatively or improving effectiveness traps otherwise high-performing individuals in a high-stress situation—especially when they feel sedentary, foggy, and stiff.
While psychological stress may seem like a minor point, it’s an expensive one. The International Labor Organization has estimated that roughly all of work-related disorders are due to stress, and that the loss caused by stress induced disorders amounts to more than 6.6 billion dollars in the U.S.
As today’s companies compete for human capital, an investment of paid-time dedicated to wellness speaks volumes about their commitment to work-life balance. Workplace yoga is an opportunity to show you care, build community across silos, to boost productivity, and make sure your employees are skipping to work for years to come.
Sandra Malm is the Lead Teacher at Raleigh, NC-based Awake Corporate Yoga