Desk Potatoes: Work Making You Fat?

May 3, 2001 -- Desk potatoes of America unite. Rise up from behind those keyboards, pry yourselves from your ergonomic chairs and spring forth from your cubicles. It's time for battle.

After all, office drones, your lives are at stake. Obesity, the deadly epidemic of corpulence, is creeping across the nation's high-rises and office parks fattening you up for the kill. About 300,000 U.S. deaths each year are attributed to obesity, along with a host of medical conditions.

At first glance, our work may not seem relevant to how fat we are. There's no scientific data pointing to any one factor as the cause of obesity. But experts say our sedentary working conditions most likely contribute to our collective bloat.

Despite a multi-billion dollar industry aimed at paring us down, America just keeps getting fatter and fatter. Obesity affects at least 70 million Americans, including more than one-third of all adults, according to the American Obesity Association.

The prevalence of obesity among adults rose 60 percent nationally since 1991, according to the CDC. It's a trend that began more than two decades ago and has only grown stronger.

Office Drones Prone to Sitting

"That is a dramatic increase in a relatively short period of time," says Donald Hensrud, a Mayo Clinic nutrition specialist. Genetic factors wouldn't change so rapidly, he says, so the increase in obesity must stem from something in the environment, such as diet or activity levels.

Despite the pervasiveness of fast food and huge portions now the norm at U.S. restaurants, research shows our fat and caloric intakes have held steady in recent decades. The amount of exercise we get hasn't changed dramatically over the years either — only about 20 percent get enough on a weekly basis, the CDC says.

"By subtracting these different factors, it must be activities throughout our day that have contributed to obesity prevalence," Hensrud says.

More Americans work in offices or other sedentary settings now that industrial and manufacturing jobs have given way to a service, technology and information-based economy.

The result: More workers are sitting for hours on end behind desks and computers, and fewer are actually exerting any physical energy throughout their workday.

Even the lunch hour is disappearing as a relic of the past. For almost a third of workers, the lunch hour consists of scarfing down food while still toiling away on our computers or phones.

From Desk Potato to Couch Potato

Unfortunately for our nation's health, not enough Americans are compensating for their lack of movement during the day by squeezing workouts into their busy schedules. Workers are more likely to get home, plop on the couch and watch television.

"We sit all day and then sit some more when we get home," says Dr. Thomas Wadden, director of the University of Pennsylvania Weight and Eating Disorders Program.

Our human instincts for efficiency have probably helped us evolve to this level of inactivity in our daily lives, Hensrud says, leading to such inventions as the elevator and the computer.

"It's human nature to do step-saving activities, to do a short cut," he said. "But nowadays in our society, it's coming back to haunt us."

Introduction: Is Your Job Ruining Your Life?

Part 2: Workaholics: Married to the Job

Part 3: Stressing Out Over Work

Part 4: After Work: Surviving the Hectic Household