The office is a dangerous place, not because of what we do, but what we frequently forget to do.

Dead at Desk

A man was found dead at his desk on Monday morning.  He was in his late twenties and had been working at the same desk for the last three years.  The medical examiner found that he had clogged arteries, but wasn’t overweight.  He had a relatively weak heart, but no history of heart conditions.  He had mild liver and kidney damage, but was not known for alcoholism or binge eating.  And, he had a lower than average muscle mass and weak joints but he did nothing different to anyone else in the office.  In fact, many of his co-workers thought he had simply fallen asleep at his desk.  He would come in to work in the morning at leave in the evening.  He would stay at his desk, even during lunch, and diligently work until he was done.  Sometimes, he would even skip meals and stay late into the night when there was a big deadline coming up.  Monday to Friday, he would work.  And work.  And work.  And that was how the paramedics found him.  Slumped over his keyboard with a spreadsheet full of numbers open on the screen.  The last entry read “$1935.75ashndskiaej;wejjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj”.

The above story may sound fictitious, but there have been similar cases of this happening.  And it’s not just the older folk who must look after themselves.  In 2013, a 24-year old advertising copywriter in Indonesia was found dead after working at her desk for over 30 hours straight.  After leaving the office, she collapsed suddenly and slipped into a coma while having dinner with her friends.  She passed away soon after.  Her untimely death was attributed to over-consumption of energy drinks to power through the hours to meet her deadline.

In 2004, a Finnish tax official in his sixties died at his desk and was not discovered until two days later.  His colleagues had been in and out of meetings and, according to statements in an article published by the BBC, his co-workers reported that “he preferred to work in peace”.  While it was never made clear what caused his death, we can definitely be sure that being found dead at our work desks is not how we would want to go out.

Make the Most of Your Sedentary Lifestyle

For many busy Singaporeans, the hectic pace of life in this country can make it difficult to care for ourselves while still maintaining a good level of productivity.  Think about how many times you might have worked through your lunch break just to meet deadlines.  Or, how many times you’ve had quick snacks or easy meals to save time that wind up being unhealthy for you in the long run.  And, how many more times have you stayed at your desk for long hours, even late into the evening to finish a project? All that rushing around coupled with skipping meals can actually lead to severely reduced productivity in the short term and, potentially, poor health in the long term.

So, here are some pointers on making the best out of your sedentary lifestyle.

The Most Important Meal of the Day

The first meal of the day is often considered the most important.  So, make sure you have a good breakfast. According to a 2012 survey of almost 200 obese men and women in Israel, incorrect meal timings and breakfasts that are not nutritious enough could lead to cravings that could counteract any possible weight loss from diet restrictions.  In the real world, this means that if you don’t have a nutritious breakfast, you might crave food and start snacking.  According to the study the best time to eat breakfast is within an hour of waking up.  So, if you wake up at 7am, make sure you eat breakfast before 8am.  Instead of eating on the go, try to eat breakfast at home and take your time to have something filling. A healthy, filling breakfast at home can help to reduce the tendency to snack while at work.

Sugars: Hidden and Exposed

Avoid high-carb breakfasts such as roti parathas or rice as they can leave you feeling stuffed and sleepy after the morning commute. Store-bought snacks are also unlike to satisfy and is highly likely to contain empty calories and have little or no nutritional value.  There is also plenty of hidden sugar in foods marketed as breakfast essentials such as cereals and yoghurt drinks, but while they seem to give you an energy spike immediately after, followed by an energy crash, which is not what you need when trying to get things going.  For more information on how to identify hidden sugars in your breakfast foods, click here.

Make sure your breakfast includes foods with a low glycemic index (GI) such as bananas or unsweetened wholegrain muesli bars if you absolutely must have your breakfast while commuting.  Low GI foods are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream.  So, instead of a sudden rise in blood glucose levels, your blood sugar will stay at a more constant level for longer which helps you keep at your productive best.

Pounce on Protein

It makes sense to include protein in your breakfast as your body needs protein to renew itself even if you have stopped growing. Protein can also help you feel fuller for longer which reduces the likelihood of you reaching out for sugary snacks while waiting for the lunch break. The simplest ways of including protein in your breakfast would be to add chopped nuts, an egg or protein in the form of yoghurt or milk.

If you must snack…

Then, snack right! Chocolates, chips and candy are all too tempting, but they are high in sugar, fat and salt and don’t give you the energy that you really need.  Keep some healthy snacks at your desk if you’re unable to resist snacking throughout the day.  Look out for nuts such as almonds and jerky which are packed with protein or dried fruit such as apricots and raisins for a little sugar boost. Keep dried foods within reach by storing them airtight containers in the drawers.

The Midday Meal

Lunch should still be fairly light, even if you’re feeling very hungry.  A heavy lunch will not only make you groggy when you’re back in the comfort of an air-conditioned office, but it can also begin to weigh you down in a big way.

According to a survey conducted by, a significant amount of weight gain in office workers can be directly attributed to unhealthy lunches.  Always try to eat lunch at around the same time every day and avoid eating meals after 3pm.  Provided you work standard office hours, between noon and 1pm is the best time to have your lunch.  It’s long enough after breakfast, provided you’ve had breakfast around 8am, that your body will be looking to refuel, but not long enough that you begin to really crave food.  Additionally, waiting too long to have your meals results in a rise in stomach acidity levels as you get hungrier that can lead to gastric discomfort or even stomach ulcers in the long term.  The feeling of hunger is also related to a drop in blood sugar.  While not true in all cases, it’s reasonable to surmise that the hungrier you feel, the lower your blood sugar level might be.  It’s no surprise that low blood sugar levels can also result in feelings of tiredness that will hinder your productivity.  So, stop pushing to get that little bit more work done and go get something to eat.  Your body will thank you for it.

Healthier Options Hawker Food

As for the food itself, there are plenty of options.  Many people like to visit the nearest hawker centres or food courts out of convenience.  But, while fishball noodle or ‘laksa’ may seem tempting, it’s rarely the healthiest option.  Your best bet is going for ‘yong tau foo’ or economic rice and avoiding taking anything fried.  In fact, going with less rice, more vegetables and asking for less (or no) oil would be the healthiest option.

Packing your own lunch is best because this makes you more aware of what and how much of it goes into your meal.  The healthier combination is complex carbohydrates, protein and greens in your meal to give you enough energy for the rest of the working day.

If you work in the CBD, click here for a list of healthier food options.

Keeping fit in a cubicle

Getting enough exercise throughout the day is also a challenge for the typical office worker.  Unless you’re making frequent trips meeting clients or overseeing projects onsite, chances are you won’t be leaving your seat too often.  However, no matter how busy you are, there are still a few simple exercises you can do that will keep your heart and body active without disturbing your co-workers or drawing too much attention.

The first step is simply getting out of your seat and standing up.  Standing and stretching your legs and arms is important to ensure proper blood flow.  In fact, sitting for more than six hours at a time can have potentially dangerous consequences.

Office DVT

In a study carried out by the Medical Research Institute in New Zealand, it was reported that restricted blood flow due to prolonged periods spent seated at an office desk can lead to blood clots, a condition known as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). This is similar in many ways to the risk of DVT during long international flights.

It’s a painful condition that often requires surgery to remove and can have fatal consequences if it is not dealt with quickly.  Taking the time to stretch every hour or two can save you a painful (and potentially expensive) trip to the hospital.  You could even take it further and go for a walk to the water cooler or step outside for a couple of minutes.

You can give your blood circulation a boost too while in your cubicle. First, lift your legs in a marching motion, bringing your knees up to your hip height or slightly higher.  There’s no need to stomp your foot down but just march on the spot for 30 seconds or so. This is followed by lunges; a couple of sets per leg tend to wake you up.  Lastly, do some hip rotations.  Put your hands on your hips and rotate your hips in a circular motion, as though you’re spinning a hula hoop, which can help with loosening of the ligaments near the joint where the thigh meets the hip.

Ending your day on the right note

Dinner is where most people try to compensate for the meals they miss during the day.  So, resist the temptation to have a big meal and go for a mixed selection that includes some meat, vegetables and a small amount of carbohydrates.

Exercise in the evening is a great way to burn off some calories and make up for sitting down most of the day.  Hitting the gym and doing some cardio and weight training can help, or even just taking walk at the park for an hour is sufficient to maintain overall health.  As a general rule, try to avoid doing it too late at night as it may affect your sleep regime.  Do it one to two hours before your bedtime to allow you to have enough time to cool down and relax.

Many people look at office work as something that is “easy” or not “physical” but the reality is that the type of work you do still poses many health risks if you don’t look after yourself.  So, ensure your diet is as healthy as possible and take as many opportunities as you can to keep yourself active.  That way, you can stay healthy and avoid dying at your desk.