Being sedentary and not moving your body can have major health impacts and also result in lower energy and lower productivity. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares strategies to incorporate more activity into your work day like using timers to remind you to get up and move around as well as habit stacking, which helps you build more healthy habits into your existing routine.
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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Teaching online is a more sedentary occupation than teaching face to face. And because of this, today we focus on how to be physically active while teaching online.
What does it mean to be sedentary? Being sedentary means that we have a way of working or a way of life characterized by much sitting and little physical exercise. If you used to teach standing up all the time and now you’re sitting down in front of a computer doing it online, that is a great example of why in online teaching we’re so much more sedentary.
Much of the adult population across the United States is sedentary, not just online educators. Recent statistics have indicated that about half of us really don’t really exercise. A few years ago, 13.3% of civilian jobs were classified as sedentary. However, now with so many people working from home, and so much teaching being done online, that sedentary population has really increased.
If you find yourself facing more sitting, sedentary behavior, not feeling like there’s time to get moving or get outside or be physically active, you’re not alone in online careers and an online education roles. The Surgeon General tells us that more than 60% of U.S. adults do not engage in the recommended amount of activity, and about 25% of U.S. adults are not active at all.
Being Sedentary Has Significant Health Impacts
Let’s talk about the pain of being sedentary. What does it do to you? What is the problem? First of all, being sedentary means that you’re sitting quite a bit. If you sit for long periods of time without moving, you end up having a lower level of energy. Your mood is lower, and you have a lower emotional affect. This means that you might notice feeling fewer positive emotions. You can get fuzzy thinking from all of this sitting and sedentary behavior. As these things increase, it seems like the harder you work, the less you accomplish long-term.
Sedentary lifestyles can cause major health impacts. According to the Center for Disease Control at cdc.gov, sedentary behavior is a risk factor for chronic health conditions like coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer and diabetes. It is also known to cause weight gain, especially around your middle section, your thighs and your hips. These are significant health impacts. The more you sit, the less energetic you feel, the more you want to sit.
Long term, sitting all day without exercising can lower your quality of life because your energy levels are going down and you’re doing less. This can also really hurt your job satisfaction. And it’s going to have an impact in your effectiveness of your online teaching. Sitting with no physical activity as an online educator will negatively impact your physical health and increase your stress levels.
How does this impact your students? If you’re sitting all day and experience low energy levels and lower emotional moods and affect, you will be less responsive and less emotionally connected to your students. It’s possible that this won’t happen; being sedentary doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be less effective in your teaching. Maybe you are the kind of person that is going to be energetic and connected even without movement in the day. While that could happen, the statistics tell us it’s unlikely and instead long term as your health is impacted, it is going to take a toll on the quality of your work. And today we are making the connection between that quality of work estimate and the potential negative impact on your students in the future.
There are a lot of things that we can do to reverse the situation of sedentary work. The first step might not be to motivate ourselves with all these negative outcomes that come from being sedentary, and instead think about some of the positive benefits. These ideas can be motivating, and if you have 30 minutes of physical activity during your day, this is believed to fully counteract one full day of sitting. If you can reduce the negative effects of sitting all day with just 30 minutes of activity, that’s a great thing.
Adding that physical activity in the middle of the work day can give your brain a break and help you disconnect from patterns of stress you may experience and come back fresh, ready to approach the next task. We also know that the brain state where our subconscious thinking works on creating, problem-solving, and processing is taking place while we are busy distracting our conscious mind through exercise, walking, talking to a friend, and other activities that takes us away from the work we’re doing. This is another good reason why taking a physical activity break can make the work easier and help us lift our moods and feel fresh again.
After a season of sitting, it can feel very difficult just getting started. I know, I’ve been there. One way to think about adding physical activity into your online teaching day would be to reframe the goal into a positive. Instead of preventing negative health impacts and negative performance, reframing means we are setting the goal of promoting positive outcomes, like building energy, creating a better mood, dealing with stress in such a healthy way, that pretty soon that stress is not as big of a big deal. The more we look at the positive outcomes, instead of preventing the negative outcomes, the more motivated we’re truly going to be. I’ve experienced it myself—that most of the motivation doesn’t come until you’re actually starting the activity.
If you want to get more physically active, you’re probably not going to feel like doing it until you’re doing it. And then a few minutes in, you might start to feel like doing it. But that motivation just might not come until the activity has begun.
Create Exercise Learning Goals
Creating a learning goal instead of a performance goal could be another helpful way to reframe. For example, you might say, “I would like to run for 25 minutes,” or “I’d like to do 20 sit ups,” or “I’d like to be able to do pull ups for however long or how many.” These are examples of performance goals.
Instead, to set learning goals, I suggest thinking about learning to be a more resilient exercise or learning to be more consistent during the routine itself. Performance goals can be problematic because when setting a number or achievement as the goal, the first time you miss that number goal of 25 minutes or 15 sit ups it begins to feel much more difficult to go back to it next time. Instead, if you increase your quality, you will be thinking about the way you engage in the activity, not just getting to the end. This will help you think like a person who will keep improving their game like a champion instead of using it as a means to the end, suffering through it.
If you’re thinking about your own personal motivation for becoming less sedentary and more physically active, I’ll share a few that have some to mind for me. I used to think about external goals like looking better or fitting more comfortably in a chair. I might have thought about clothing I wanted to enjoy wearing and the way I wanted that to look. It’s true that we might look even better when becoming more physically active, but all of these ideas are external.
A reframe for this would be to think about feeling better, no matter what size or shape you’re in. After all, when you feel good, you look good. You radiate light and energy. People want to be around you when you feel energetic. And it really doesn’t matter what your size or shape is when that kind of confidence is your life experience.
In addition to reframing the way we think about being physically active and finding positive motivation to get started, there are additional strategies we can use to make it part of the work day.
Now, I’m not sure what your experience has been, but I’ve noticed that at times an entire day has passed when I set a goal to stand up in between my online meetings, or set a timer to remind me to get up between the tasks with a goal and have that goal to get up and walk for five minutes, and instead my thoughts took over and steered me in another direction contrary to my goal.
For example, the time would come for the meeting to end. I might run and grab a drink of water sit down and just keep working. At the time, my brain said, “You don’t have time to walk yet.” Or I might have thought, “I can’t quite do that right now, the meeting went over by a five minutes, and I need to just sit down and get going again.” A few more papers, send a few more emails. Pretty soon the whole day is gone and I haven’t gone for a walk at all.
Working online there can be a drive to be productive to get everything done. And yet, it’s possible that the work is never done, there will always be more you can do when you’re working online. If you’ve experienced something like this, going through hours and hours of being in your online teaching and not being able to fit in the exercise, I’m going to give you a few strategies I’ve used with coaching clients, learned from other faculty who also teach online, or just created for my own routine. I hope one or more of these will help you begin balancing physical fitness and online teaching more effectively.
Strategies for Incorporating Exercise into your Work Day
The first strategy is to move at least every 90 minutes on the longer end of a time commitment. If you schedule just a few minutes to get up and move around, walk around the house, walk outside and get the mail, and do one of those things every 90 minutes, it will break up your day and help you get a fresh perspective.
The second strategy is to purchase a sit-and-stand desk. This kind of desk can be raised up while you’re working at your computer so you can be standing for a while. And it can be lowered again when you’re sitting. I have this kind of desk, and it’s about 2.5 feet deep and 48″ wide, with an electronic switch that moves it up and down electronically. On days when I stand at this desk instead of sitting, I feel much better physically and enjoy my work also. At first, I thought it would be difficult to work standing up at the computer, but I’ve found that it’s not difficult at all. If that’s interesting to you, I recommend it and attest to the positive side of working at a stand-up desk.
The third strategy is to schedule time on your calendar where a little alarm goes off, or some kind of trigger happens to remind you to go outside for five minutes, at least once during your workday. Even if the sun is not shining, the air from the outdoors can be refreshing and will help break up your mental patterns. This could also be achieved using the Pomodoro method.
The Pomodoro method is a time management method that uses a timer, whether it’s a physical timer or an online tool. Pomodoro means tomato, and you might have seen analog timers shaped like a tomato for the kitchen. The Pomodoro method was a concept computer engineers used when they needed to work in a very focused way. They were having a hard time staying focused, without letting go to think of other things. When they gave themselves 25 minutes of total focus and let the timer go off, they could have five or 10 minutes of freedom to think about something else, walk around, socialize in the office, or do something else. After either two or four of these rounds of Pomodoro sessions, a larger break of 20 or 30 minutes is added, and then you start over.
Here is an idea of how this might work in online teaching. Set the timer for 20 or 25 minutes and just respond to students in discussion forums that long. When the timer goes off, get up and walk around for the five-minute break, then you’ve got your physical activity in there. You’ve also got some boundaries over the time you’re spending in that particular classroom.
Then the next 25 minutes you’re going to spend could be grading some papers, and then you’re going to do another round of five minutes of physical activity. Once you try this kind of pattern, you might find that you actually get a lot more focused work done, and you’re more physically active as well, which makes the quality of your work much, much better.
The fourth strategy is to create a morning exercise habit. I have done this myself for long periods of time, adding exercise two or three mornings a week. My favorite is a 1988 strength training workout video called ”The Firm: Volume 2.” I’ve also walked on my treadmill, which is in my office. And walking has been a great one to insert in the morng, or later in the day if you’re on a meeting and don’t have to be on video. Or if a meeting ends early and you have five minutes, you could take those five minutes and walk on your treadmill to break up the day.
If morning physical activity is your preference, I’ve found that setting my exercise shoes, socks, and clothes on the bathroom counter the night before helps me keep my commitment in the morning. Waking up and seeing those exercise clothes there tells me that I need to keep my commitment even if I only walk a short time.
Bringing this all together now, considering the negative impacts of sedentary work and reframing thoughts about physical activity into the positive rewards can get us started. And strategies like moving every 90 minutes, using a sit-and-stand desk, setting timers that remind us to move during the day, and planning to exercise in the morning are just a few ways to bring physical activity into the online teaching workday and reduce sitting time.
I’d like to end our podcast today with the concept of habit stacking, from James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits.” Habit stacking is built with a sentence frame. And it goes like this: “After blank, I will blank.” And the first blank, you’re going to fill in a habit you currently have. For example, if you have the habit of drinking a cup of coffee every morning, or drinking a glass of water every morning, then you’re going to stack the new habit right after the one you already accomplish.
Maybe my new habit is to walk around the house for five minutes. So, I drink a glass of water right when I get out of bed, here’s how my sentence might go: “After I drink a glass of water in the morning, I will walk around the house for five minutes.” I’ve tried this with coaching clients who have built habits around bathroom breaks with a lot of success. For example, one person decided that after leaving the desk to go use the bathroom, before sitting down again she would do five push-ups.
Habit stacking is a simple way to take something that is already working well for you and pairing it with the new thing you want to start doing. In thinking about this, it’s important not to overwhelm the habit stack with a lot of things at once, when trying to change habits. To make it work, only add one habit. After several weeks if it is working, then you can add another.
Habit stacking works well if you make that existing good habit obvious. Choose something you do every day. Then, make it attractive. That means you’re pairing the action you want to do with something that you need to do or enjoy doing, or a community that you enjoy. When you’re practicing habit stacking to become more physically active, keep it simple and easy to accomplish.
Some great examples of this are just starting with like two minutes of exercise, or two pushups. Small habits are so much easier than giant ones. In fact, if you make it small, it’s almost harder not to do it. You’ll think it’s silly to skip it, why wouldn’t I walk for two minutes? I could walk for two minutes. Now 20 minutes, that’s a lot longer. But two minutes, you can do that. And then maybe a week later, you could just add one minute, and you’re walking for three minutes. By the end of the semester, or the end of your class, your teaching, you probably will have worked up to 20 or 30 minutes. So, make it obvious, attractive, simple, and easy. With this kind of approach, you’re making the new habit satisfying. You might even consider giving yourself some kind of reinforcement, like a reward after practicing the habit over time. Whatever it is, habit stacking with these intentional strategies will help you get a new habit in motion.
Ultimately, we know that working online and teaching online make us more sedentary and it’s so easy to get into a habit of working for hours and hours and hours without moving. Pretty soon, we’ve gone through the whole day this way. After a long time, pretty soon we don’t want to be active because we feel sluggish and fatigued. I know this is true because I’ve been there. I have sedentary habits and must consciously think about physical activity. Early in my online teaching career, I began changing it and a lot of weight. I’m still working on regular habits, and I believe these take time to establish. I don’t suggest anyone jump into them all at once, but instead start small, make it easy, and be kind to yourself along the way.
Thank you for joining me today for our time together thinking about physical activity and online teaching. It’s an ongoing quest to move from a sedentary workday, sitting at a computer all day, to including more physical activity. If you have enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to review it using your favorite app. We particularly appreciate reviews in Apple Podcasts and remember to share it with someone you know who does the important work of teaching online. Best wishes in your online teaching this coming week!
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.