is sitting the new smoking?
Culture | January 14, 2015
A study released by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests that, because you’re human, you lose 11% to 14% of your productivity potential every day. You check the news. You chitchat with a colleague in the next cubicle. You daydream about dinner, who is going to be on Jimmy Kimmel tonight, or your upcoming weekend road-trip. We’re all human. We’re not machines. And there’s not much we can do to change it.
Here’s something you can change. Research also suggests that for every health risk you possess, you lose an additional percentage of your productivity potential (small health risks obviously impact productivity less than serious health concerns). Some studies suggest that the average person has between 10 to 12 health risks every single day. Do the math. Even if a minor risk reduced your potential by 3%, but you possess 10 small risks, you could be operating at about half of your potential.
Curious about how these seemingly small physical changes could impact performance at work, we started digging for more research. And we found it—a ton of it—packaged neatly into one book.
“Losing four hours of sleep is comparable to drinking a six-pack of beer,” says Tom Rath, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Eat Move Sleep. “I don’t want to be in a serious meeting with a person who drank six beers or lost four hours of sleep. I don’t want my child’s teacher to be that person. I don’t want my doctor to be that person. Still, we don’t view the two scenarios (beer drinking and not sleeping) as equal. In fact, our culture views a person who needs sleep, as a person with a weakness. In fact, in the business world, many professionals take pride in burning the midnight oil.”
Rath, most known for his thought-leadership in the business space—the author of Strengths Finder 2.0, How Full is Your Bucket, and the more recent bestseller Strengths Based Leadership—has both personal and professional reasons for shifting his attention toward health and wellness. “I’ve battled health issues of my own,” he recently told us during a podcast interview. “But when I started doing research for personal reasons, I realized the impact small changes could make in elevating performance as well.”
In Eat Move Sleep, Rath cites a study from Harvard Medical School, which suggests ‘lack of sleep’ costs the American economy $63 billion in lost productivity. And it’s not because employees aren’t showing up for work—we’re not talking about absenteeism. A concept called presenteeism is apparently slaying our ability to perform. Basically, the word means being sick in some way, but showing up to work anyway. We’ve all had those days where we’re not performing at our best—too little sleep, a headache, or the common cold. We’re present; we’re just not in the game.
“Not reaching your potential is not just about having an illness,” said Rath. “It’s about not being fully healthy. Our culture has spent a lot of time talking about how not to be sick—don’t smoke, and don’t eat junk food. We also talk a lot about how healthy habits prevent disease. But most people don’t talk about how healthy habits improve you—your energy, your focus, your mood, and your performance.”
Surprising your colleagues at work with a box of glazed donuts might seem like a great idea to motivate people to work harder. But, when the sugar-rush dies, so will their energy. And, according to Rath, it’s not just the donuts, or sodas, or candy bars that have an impact. “Every ounce of food or liquid you consume has either a net positive or a net negative effect by the time it runs through your body,” said Rath. “You don’t get healthier by simply trying to eat better in general. You improve your health on a bite-by-bite basis. One of my favorite meals was hickory-glazed salmon at a local restaurant. I loved it, and assumed it was healthy until I started doing research on barbecue sauce. Basically, it’s almost all sugar—like syrup for meat. But, if you want big change, you’ve got to think about every small bite and the impact the ingredients will have either positively or negatively.”
For anyone who’s experienced the afternoon coma that follows lunch, you understand exactly what bite-by-bite means—that the food you eat today, affects your performance today.
Still, when it comes to the impact our health choices make on our abilities to accomplish great work, one specific comment made by Rath shocked us—because it challenges a common workplace habit that has been baked into most workplace cultures. He said, “Sitting is the most underrated health-threat of modern time. Researchers found that sitting more than six hours in a day will greatly increase your risk of an early death.”
That comment might be hard to digest if you spend your day in a chair. And, for those of you who have a ‘butts in chairs equals productivity’ mindset, Rath also mentioned that walking can increase energy levels by 150%. “Inactivity is dangerous,” he said. “In fact, some research shows inactivity now kills more people than smoking.”
“Any advice on where a person should start making small changes?” we asked.
“The business world is really good at tracking and accountability,” Rath replied. “At work, we’re really good at setting goals and creating systems and processes to reach those goals. Our culture, however, has never been good at tracking and accountability when it comes to health, until now. Technology (like Fitbit and Jawbone devices) now makes it effortless to track activity and sleep. And when you’re aware of what you’re doing in real-time, it’s easy to see how small choices lead to big changes.”
Rath paused. “Beyond that…” he said, “it is about eating, moving, and sleeping well in combination.”
Share your story of ‘small choices leading to big changes’ for a chance to win one of five free copies of Eat Sleep Move.
This post was originally published on Forbes.