Health hazards for IT workers -- how that desk job wears your body down

Too much junk food, too little exercise and a 24/7 tether to technology? Your body ain't happy, friend. Let us count the pains.

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The text messaging and other handheld-based activities that IT professionals hold so dear make them more vulnerable to developing symptoms ranging from hand throbbing and swelling to tendonitis, according to the American Physical Therapy Association's Occupational Health Special Interest Group. When text messaging, people tend to tense their shoulders and upper arms, which cuts down circulation to the forearm at the time when the consistent movements of the thumb and fingers require increased blood flow, the APTA says. Also, because so many PDA users are middle-aged businesspeople, overuse can inflame underlying arthritis, further increasing the risk of injury.

There's a quality-of-work component to extremity injuries as well, according to the musculoskeletal report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. "High job demands and high job stress are work-related psychosocial factors that are associated with the occurrence of upper extremity disorders," the report notes. In other words, somewhere down the line, you're potentially going to feel that stressful job in your hands, wrists, elbows, arms or shoulders.

To cut short that damage before it happens, check out recommendations for a more ergonomic workstation setup from the Occupational Health & Safety Administration.

Heart

Nearly one in three adult males in the U.S. has some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD), which is the single leading cause of death of American men, according to the American Heart Association.

Statistics published on the AHA site show that the lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular heart disease after age 40 is 49% in men and 32% in women. Besides heart attack, CVD can lead to other cardiac-related events such as angina, stroke, high blood pressure and peripheral vascular disease.

While some of the risk factors that contribute to that risk for cardiovascular disease -- such as age, sex and genetics -- are beyond an individual's control, behaviors like smoking, exercise and diet have a significant impact on increasing or decreasing a person's risk profile.

The first step in the battle is to know your risk factors, says the North Shore Medical Center's Dr. Waldman. "People, by age 40 or so, should know what their lipid profile is," he says. "Awareness sometimes ignites change, and people may start to make better choices."

Gut

Over the years, a lifestyle of poor food choices and lack of exercise pretty much guarantees weight gain and loss of muscle mass. And IT workers in particular are at risk of gaining weight.

According to a May 2008 CareerBuilder.com survey of approximately 7,700 employees, 34% of respondents who identified themselves as IT workers said they had gained more than 10 pounds in their current job, and 17% had packed on more than 20 pounds. While IT workers' weight gain was less than those in financial services and government, it was still above the average, for all workers who took the online survey, where 26% said they had gained 10 pounds and 12% had gained 20 or more.

The same survey showed that a mere 9% of all workers head out to the gym during lunch breaks to work off those calorie-laden restaurant lunches (38% eat out twice or more per week) or frequent snacks (66% of those surveyed snacked once a day, with nearly 25% indulging twice a day or more).

Weight gain, particularly when around the middle, where it tends to collect in middle age, has been directly linked to metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that increase propensity for heart diseases and diabetes, among other problems. Diabetes, in turn, opens the door to a host of other issues, including blindness, sores that don't heal and more serious maladies. Type 2 diabetes occurs most frequently in people who are 45 or older and overweight, according to the American Heart Association.

Another unpleasant side effect of obesity, especially as it relates to diabetes and metabolic syndrome, is testosterone deficiency, which can lead to erectile dysfunction and lowered libido, according to reports from endocrinologists.

Legs

If you're stuck behind a desk all day, the lack of exercise over time can lead to loss of muscle mass, and losing muscle mass decreases a person's ability to keep weight off, NSMC's Waldman says. "When it comes to muscle mass, if you don't use it, you lose it," he says, "and muscle is far more effective at metabolizing calories than fat."

Just as cardiovascular disease, brought on by poor diet and insufficient exercise, can affect the arteries around the heart, so too can it affect blood flow to extremities such as the legs. Office workers with a poor diet and insufficient exercise can over time develop peripheral vascular disease, a serious condition that affects some 8 million Americans and can lead to a heart attack, stroke or diabetes.

For healthy adults aged 18-65, about 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity five days of the week can protect your heart and consequently help stave off lower-extremity diseases, according to the latest guidelines (PDF) issued jointly by the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Age, gender and genetics are outside your control, but lifestyle and eating habits are well within your purview to change. With a few well-chosen modifications, which don't even need to be extreme, you can alter your health profile.

Physicians like Waldman say it's imperative for IT workers and other deskbound professionals to take the time to pay at least some attention to diet and exercise and their physical workstation setup in the office.

Making small changes -- cutting back on red meat, reducing portion size or taking regular, 10-minute exercise and stretching breaks -- can be just as effective over time as radical changes like taking up running or abruptly switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet. The trick, the experts say, is to make changes that will stick. (See "Five easy changes for better health now" for suggestions.)

Mentally, you need to find a way to respect your body's limitations as well as its strengths. "If you're asking a lot from your mind and body, you must be prepared to properly nourish it too," notes Robin Foroutan, a nutritionist and holistic health counselor certified by the Institute for Integrated Nutrition in New York. "That means downtime, exercise, stress release, quality time with friends and loved ones, adequate sleep and healthy foods."

Next: Five easy changes for better health now

Beth Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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