Packing on pounds while climbing the corporate ladder? You’re in good company: in a 2013 Harris Interactive survey of more than 3,000 workers conducted for CareerBuilder, 41% of respondents said they’d gained weight in their current jobs. Workers who spend long hours sitting at a desk (like administrative assistants) and have high stress levels (like engineers and teachers) were more likely to have gained weight.
The truth is, there are lots of reasons your work could be affecting your waistline. “It really has to do with diet, physical activity, and behavior,” says Katherine Tryon, a medical doctor with the Vitality Institute, a global research organization based New York City. Here are some potential factors, and how to steer clear of their consequences.
Hours of sitting
The most obvious cause of work-related weight gain is the lack of physical activity many employees get from (at least) 9 to 5, and in the CareerBuilder survey, workers pointed to “sitting at my desk most of the day” as the number-one reason for their expanding waistlines. Though it’s true that research shows people who stand or walk throughout the day burn more calories, which can translate to fewer pounds gained over time, a 2013 British study failed to find a strong link between time spent sitting and obesity. The authors say that while sedentary behavior certainly doesn’t help, there are clearly other factors fueling weight gain as well.
Your long commute
In addition to time spent at a desk, the average American spends 25.4 minutes commuting to work and then again to get home, according to the US Census Bureau, and the American Community Survey shows that 86% of workers commute by car. Those who take public transportation to and from work tend to have lower BMIs than those who drive or ride in a car, found a 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal, as do those who walk or ride their bikes. “Businesses need to think about ways to turn commuting into a healthy activity, like offering bike racks and showers to their employees,” says Dr. Tryon.
Boss on your case again? Try not to freak out: High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can trigger fat and sugar cravings, and can also cause the body to hang onto fat and store it around the midsection. And a 2014 German study found that work-related stress is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
You may also feel like you need to forget healthy habits in order to get ahead, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Eating in Color. “Maybe you used to go for a walk at lunch but then you change jobs or get a promotion, and suddenly all eyes are on you,” she says. “You may feel like your daily break from the office is no longer acceptable, so you put in the extra time and your weight suffers.”
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Employees who burn the midnight oil to meet deadlines or keep up with heavy workloads may also blame their restricted sleep schedule for excess weight gain. In a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, adults who got only four hours of shuteye a night for five nights in a row gained more weight than those who got eight hours, thanks to the extra meals (and higher-calorie foods) they consumed during late-night hours.
Adults who work multiple jobs, who start work early in the morning, or who commute longer distances are more likely to go without full nights’ sleep, according to a 2014 study also by University of Pennsylvania researchers. The authors suggest that flexible start times may help workers get more sleep overall.
Your lunch options
People who work in or commute through neighborhoods with a lot of drive-thrus are more likely to stop at them, and they’re also more likely to have higher BMIs, according to a 2014 British study. In fact, the study group with the most exposure to takeout joints on the way to and from work was almost twice as likely to be obese, compared to those with who were least exposed. “If you don’t have healthy lunch options nearby, you may need to make a real effort to prepare and pack your own food ahead of time,” says Largeman-Roth.
Lack of wellness programs
Dr. Tryon’s own research suggests that employers have a unique opportunity to improve public health by offering incentives and tools, like reduced insurance premiums and weight-loss support groups. But a 2014 research review from Hampshire College found that only 25% of large companies, and only 5% of small businesses, offer comprehensive wellness programs. Why? Companies say the programs cost too much and that they don’t want to meddle in their employees’ business.
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Candy jars and freebie tables
In any office, there’s someone who always keeps a bowl of candy out, says Largeman-Roth, and if you’re a dieter or a binger or a stress eater, that person is the enemy. “We know that when you put something delicious out on prominent display, people are going to eat much more of it than if it was tucked away in a desk drawer out of sight.” The same goes for the leftover desserts or doughnuts lurking in the kitchen, she adds. “If there’s a common area for sweets and you know it’s a weakness, you may need to steer clear and not let yourself be tempted.”
Coworkers’ eating habits
If you frequently go to lunch with your colleagues, their unhealthy dietary choices may rub off on you. A 2014 review study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that people tend to conform to “eating norms” in social settings. In other words, if you know other people are ordering high-fat foods, you’re more likely to do the same. This makes sense, especially in a work setting, says Largeman-Roth. “You want to fit in—no one wants to be known as the girl who only eats tofu or drinks green smoothies, so you go along with the crowd even if it’s not what you’d normally order,” she says.
Constant office parties
If your workplace is the type that marks every single birthday, anniversary, and promotion with cake and cookies, watch out: Nearly one in five respondents to the CareerBuilder survey said that these celebrations contributed to their weight gain.
“Employers may see these events as fun perks that boost company morale, so it can be quite controversial to suggest that they may not be so good for their health,” says Dr. Tryon. “The challenge here is in finding ways to celebrate and reward workers that doesn’t necessarily involve forcing sugary foods on them.”
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The vending machines
When you’ve got back-to-back meetings and even the cafeteria is too far away, the vending machine can be your savior—at least temporarily. But most of those packaged snack options are high in calories and low in nutrients, says Largeman-Roth.
Instead, try to keep healthy snacks like apples or fruit-and-nut bars at your desk. Before you give into a soda craving, drink a glass of cold water. (Chances are you don’t actually need the caffeine, not to mention the calories.) And if you must visit the vending machine, opt for a small pack of unsalted nuts or trail mix, which has protein and healthy fats to fill you up.
When’s the last time you took the stairs at work? Taking the stairs, even if that means changing into sneakers on your lunch break or getting off the elevator a flight or two early in an office high-rise, can add valuable calorie-burning steps to your day, says Dr. Tryon. Employers should take note, too. “Simple environmental changes, like lighting stairwells to make them more appealing for people to use, can create a healthier environment and healthier workers,” Dr. Tryon says.
Lack of sunlight
If you work in a windowless cubicle and you arrive at work before the sun comes up, you could be missing out on a powerful, all-natural weapon against obesity. A 2014 Northwestern University study found that exposure to the sun was associated with BMI, and that getting bright light in the morning hours seemed to have a slimming effect. Light helps to regulate circadian rhythms, which in turn regulate energy balance and expenditure, say the study authors. They suggest getting 20 to 30 minutes of sunlight between 8 a.m. and noon each day to avoid unwanted weight gain—yet another argument for walking to work or taking that mid-morning break!
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All the wining-and-dining on business trips can add up: dinners on the company tab, lavish meals with clients or associates, and the lure of regional cuisine are all likely to trigger overeating, even for someone who’s normally very healthy at home, says Largeman-Roth. Plus, traveling for work two weeks or more a month was linked to higher BMI, higher rates of obesity, and lower self-reported health in a 2011 Columbia University study. The authors note that 81% of business trips are taken in cars, and that travelers are likely sitting for long hours and making poor food choices.
Night-shift workers may be at an even higher risk of obesity than daytime desk jockeys, according to a 2014 University of Colorado at Boulder study. Researchers found that participants burned fewer calories over a three-day period when they slept during the day and stayed up (and ate) through the night than when they followed a normal schedule. The body’s circadian clock can shift over time, the researchers say, but because shift-workers tend to revert to a normal schedule on their days off, their bodies never fully adapt to their work schedules.
Eating at your desk every day works against your waistline in more ways than one. Not only do you miss out the exercise you would have gotten by walking a few blocks to the sandwich shop, but you’re likely missing out on the full experience of eating. “You’re multitasking—answering emails, making phone calls, doing online shopping—and you’re not focusing on the enjoyment or the fulfillment of your food,” says Largeman-Roth. “And an hour later, you’ve almost forgotten you ate lunch and you’re already grabbing something else, not realizing you just had a full meal.”
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Your digital devices
Job-related obesity triggers don’t always disappear when you leave the office. In an ever-connected society, many employees find themselves tied to a mobile phone even in their so-called off hours, making it harder for them to escape work stress and demands.
Frequent use of these devices has also been linked to increased rates of sedentary behavior, which can in turn lead to unwanted weight gain. In a 2013 Kent State University study, people who used their cell phones most often were also most likely to forego opportunities for physical activity.
Happy hours and networking events
In many offices, after-work drinks are an expected part of the job—it’s where you bond with your coworkers, earn points with your boss, or blow off steam when a project doesn’t go your way. “You feel like you can’t say no, because you don’t want to be the person who’s killing the party,” says Largeman-Roth.
But calories from alcohol—and from those appetizers Susie in accounting just ordered for the table—can add up quickly. And because booze lowers inhibitions and stimulates appetite, the more you drink, the harder it will be to resist those pre-dinner snacks.