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The "Desk Jockey Syndrome"

To reduce rising rates of illness and health-care costs, a growing number of employers are expanding "wellness" initiatives by providing workers with incentives and tools to improve their health. FLOW is one of those promising tools which has been shown to improve the physical and mental health among people who use computers as a significant part of their work day. Creator of FLOW, Dr. Renée Nasajón explains how scientific research has helped develop this breakthrough software that seamlessly integrates in a diversity of sedentary work environments.

The phrase “desk jockey” was originally created to designate a person whose job involves working at a desk for a major part of the day _ a much-needed neologism, considering the number of individuals who spend up to eight hours at a desk have multiplied exponentially in the last decade. Yet, the modern concept of “desk jockeying” implies something more than working at a desk all day. It demands of the body a “frozen,” locked position while staring at a computer monitor for extended hours. This issue concerned me greatly, not only because I am a holistic researcher, but also because I’ve become a “desk jockey” myself. It was from both personal experience and arduous investigation on the issue that I realized a new syndrome was born: the “desk jockey syndrome” (DJS).
A syndrome is a group of symptoms occurring together. Thus, depression, for example, is a syndrome that includes symptoms of sadness, lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness, lack of sexual drive, low appetite, and sleeping difficulties among others. So what are the DJS symptoms? According to research, desk jockeys frequently report a group of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms including: back and neck pain, tension headaches, moodiness, irritability, fatigue, cravings for sugars and stimulants (e.g., coffee, nicotine), and mild lethargy.
Due to my holistic orientation, I was particularly interested in investigating the underlying factors connecting the lifestyle of the desk jockey and the development of the syndrome. Why? A holistic perspective focuses heavily on the intrinsic connection between the mind and the body. Holistic researchers believe that whatever we do with the body will affect the mind, and vice verse. Our lifestyles dictate the way we treat our bodies. Therefore, I figured that the emotional symptoms of the desk-jockey syndrome, including irritability, lethargy and even mild sadness, should find their root in the lifestyles we choose to follow. In my quest for an answer, I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Thayer — a California State University professor and investigator. According to Dr. Thayer, and not to my surprise, the fundamental factors underlying the desk-jockey’s lifestyle are two: 1. Lack of regular physical activity and 2. Over consumption of stimulating products (caffeine, nicotine, simple carbohydrates, and fat). Dr. Thayer’s twenty years of research on the subject was able to show that when physical movement is restricted for long hours we tend to experience fatigue, a drop in concentration, irritability, muscle tension, and cravings for stimulating products including coffee, cigarettes, and sugary/fatty snacks. Furthermore, prolonged rest makes it more difficult to resist the temptation of these “quick fixes” because they are highly effective in temporarily alleviating these symptoms. What I did find surprising, however, is that the consumption of these products end up exacerbating the syndrome’s signs after their effects are worn out, making us more irritable, moody, tense, fatigued and lethargic. This creates a vicious cycle that goes from energy drop and tension buildup, to the consumption of stimulants, to further energy drop and tension buildup. This dangerous cycle may eventually lead to the development of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer, aside from emotional problems including anxiety and depression. Dr. Thayer's research also proved that brief bouts of physical activity throughout the day can effectively disable this cycle by elevating our levels of energy and reducing our tension and cravings.
Modern over-reliance on computers and the consequent fast proliferation of desk- jockey jobs have lead scientists to pay closer attention to the potential health risks stemming from our exceptionally sedentary lifestyle. What most studies are finding are that desk jockeys present a high-level risk of developing diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders (e.g., neck, upper/lower back, and shoulder pain), worsen back posture, weight gain and obesity (especially among men), ovarian and renal cancers, thrombosis and varicose veins, mood disturbances (e.g. anxiety, fear, and irritability), and job dissatisfaction.
It’s important to note that physical activity does not refer to the typical leisure-time trip to the gym, but more to getting up to photocopy a document or walking to the next cubicle to talk to a co-worker. New evidence is showing that a key solution to the problem of DJS lies in the consistent interruption of sedentary behavior (independent of whether the person exercises outside working hours or not). Investigators believe that prolonged lack of muscle contraction could lead to metabolic disruption and consequent development of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. This view is becoming so predominant that some investigators are even suggesting to include, as part of the general public health recommendations, measures to prevent prolonged uninterrupted periods of sitting time.
Dr. Levine’s research at the Mayo Clinic, with its focus on nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), is a good example of recent investigative work supporting the preventive power of work interruption. NEAT refers to the total amount of calories burnt through “micro-movements” such as fidgeting, maintenance of posture, walking to the car, getting up to reach out for an object, etc. Dr. Levine believes that weight gain among desk employees may be directly related to lack of NEAT. Indeed, computer users are no strangers to the feeling of “stiffness” and “stagnation” from remaining in a frozen position while staring at the monitor. NEAT calories should not be underestimated. Researchers believe that if obese individuals engaged in the NEAT behaviors of lean individuals, they would burn an additional 350 calories (kcal) per day.
All this data suggests that there is room for a “desk jockey syndrome,” and that the guidelines of 30-60 minutes of daily moderate activity for the prevention of obesity and other chronic diseases may not be sufficient for desk workers. Unfortunately, lack of public awareness may lead sedentary employees who do exercise outside working hours to feeling misleadingly convinced that they are preventing the health problems posed by their sedentary job.
Many of us do not have jobs that dispense us with the luxury of having the freedom to move our bodies in accordance with their natural design. Leaving our desks means abandoning our workstation and most jobs do not reflect a generous degree of “holistic consideration" for our health. The good news is some researchers (like myself) have been working vigorously to circumvent this obstacle. A very creative initiative is that of Dr. Levine’s: A workstation consisting of a desk mounted on a treadmill so employees can walk while working. This solution has proven to be very effective in increasing physical activity among desk jockeys. Because Dr. Levine’s solution may not be cost-effective for very large companies (each unit may costs an average of $1,000), I came up with a much more affordable alternative: FLOW.
The FLOW software program provides a series of 5-minute long videos with a personal trainer demonstrating exercises covering the entire body. The exercises have been designed to be performed while sitting at a desk. Six exercise videos each engage a different part of the body, with a 7th exercise video devoted exclusively to stretching the whole body.  The interface is small enough to allow reading from the monitor while the application is running. FLOW also includes a “virtual coach,” in the  form of video clips of a trainer delivering motivational cues, strategically scheduled to appear every time the program is skipped four consecutive times.  Additionally, FLOW provides nutritional information, motivational prompts for maintaining healthy dietary habits, and positive affirmations addressing life's common problems. FLOW offers online support for program operation. The exercises do not require special equipment, attire, training, facilities, good weather, or exercise experience.
If you are a desk-jockey like myself, and have been feeling irritable, fatigued, lethargic, anxious, sad, and/or unable to dodge weight gaining, maybe you are experiencing DJS. If that were the case, keep in mind that solutions are available to you that are not only effective and affordable, but which also have no side effects.
Dr. Renée Nasajón explains the health risks
associated with long hours sitting at a desk.

If you would like to see a demo of the FLOW Software Program, please visit 
Dr. Renée Nasajón is a Florida licensed clinical psychologist, with vast experience in the area of behavioral medicine, adult/adolescent clinical psychology, and holistic research. Dr. Nasajón obtained her doctoral degree from Miami Institute of Psychology, and her training and post-doctoral degrees at University of Miami. She has a private practice and participates in webcast presentations provided by the Clinical Directors Network Inc. (CDN). Dr. Nasajon also provides consultation for various research projects. Dr. Nasajon is the conceptual creator of FLOW, and president of The E Wave Corporation.  


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