Surviving the Cube: The War on Cubicle-Induced Muscle Atrophy

Coming from a clinical and food service environment, I have historically been able to stay on my feet most of my day during the first 4 years or so that I was working. Landing in a cubicle with no patients to visit and no kitchen to monitor has left me fighting to maintain and gain physical strength, endurance, and flexibility. I know I'm not alone in my struggle. How do we fit regular physical activity in our day when literally everything we do is in front of a computer? 

There are certain companies that have been proactive in addressing this issue. Some of these employers offer treadmill or stationary bike desks, specialized chairs to support core engagement, standing desks, in-office fitness facilities, flexible time options to allow for employees to pursue physical activity during their work day, among other unique benefits. While these options are nice, they are still far from the norm. I'll share a few things we can do to win the war on cubicle-induced muscle atrophy (loss of muscle mass) and not only prevent atrophy, but pursue actual gains in strength, endurance, and flexibility by hacking our environments and advocating for better access to physical activity in our workplaces.

Participate in workplace fitness related competitions.

  • For me, this has been a stair challenge (that got insanely competitive) and a "Race to the Beach" where teams compete to log the most miles. The best reasons to participate in these is for competition-driven motivation, and because it gives you an excuse to get out there and move. Your office not host any of these? That's where you come in, friend. Even more rewarding than changing your fitness habits for the better is changing the habits of your entire office. The more participation these events have (even though yes, sometimes they can get corny), the more often they will be offered.


Take advantage of every break.

  • This, I cannot stress enough. If you are working through your breaks at work, you are allowing your company to steal your time. Period. "But I'm so busy, so much to do," blah, blah, blah. If you are working through your breaks, you are working without pay. You do not owe the company you work for any more than the time they are paying you to work. Don't let yourself be taken advantage of. My employer generously allows the combination of two 15-minute breaks into a 30 minute wellness break. You can't combine that with lunch or use it at the very beginning or very end of the day, but it's there. A free 30 minutes. You better believe I come armed every day to work with a change of clothes in preparation for utilizing my 30 minutes. I go running, do yoga, walk stairs, or do other calisthenic exercises. I have this time blocked on my calendar every. single. day. Everyone knows to expect me to be gone and getting my workout on from 3:30-4:00 p.m. Used consistently every day, those 30 minutes can completely change your physical health for the better. Does your employer offer this benefit? If not, I suggest you ask about the possibility. After all, the worst they can say is no and you can use your two 15 minutes separately for short bursts of physical activity.

Take the stairs - all the time.

  • "But I don't have time, stairs take too long," "I don't like walking to my desk out of breath," "My co-workers always take the elevator, they'll think I'm weird." Being out sick from diabetic complications takes longer, nobody cares how hard you're breathing, and if people think you're weird for taking the stairs you should not be hanging out with those people. This is so easy to make a habit of doing EVERY single time you go from one floor to the next.

Advocate for environmental improvements.

  • Join your wellness committee and speak up for what you feel you need to be physically active every day in your environment. Don't have a wellness committee? Start one! Your co-workers (and your health) will thank you! In my workplace, while we have the amazing break time, we lack the facilities necessary to truly take full advantage of the time. Our fitness room consists of a computer that you can plug a workout DVD into with no equipment. I am not a fan of workout DVDs, which is why running outside, yoga, and calisthenic exercise remains my go-to for now. I would love to start working on building strength and muscle mass, but it is difficult without the proper equipment. This is the reason I have become active in my company's wellness committee meetings to advocate for what we all need to win this war. In the end, so many people will benefit from these improvements, and that makes it worth the time investment.

New preliminary research findings from the Institute of Aging and Chronic Disease at the University of Liverpool show how dramatically even just 14 days of a sedentary lifestyle can decrease muscle mass and increase fat gain in previously healthy people. Going to the gym just once or twice a week is simply not enough. Exercise should be sprinkled throughout the day consistently every day to maintain optimal health and since we're at the office 8-10 hours every day, it only makes sense to start there. Is your working environment physically building you up, or breaking you down? How will you hack your environment to sprinkle physical activity into your every day life?

Share in the comments how your employer supports daily physical activity in your workplace!