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Take small steps to make work time healthier

American Heart Association

Why it matters

  • With long hours spent on the job, it’s important to fit healthy practices into your workday.
  • Lots of sitting at work can mean too much sedentary time and not enough physical activity.
  • Company health and savings plans can help you keep up with routine medical screenings and find ways to save on out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Small steps and big actions can create a healthy workplace. It all adds up to better physical health and mental well-being.

Employees spend so many hours working each week that it makes sense for workers to maintain good health on the job and use benefits available in company health plans. It’s especially timely now, with more people returning to offices after remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, employees report feeling more stress than they did in 2020, according to Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report.” Almost half of the world’s workers felt stressed, and working women in the U.S. and Canada were among the most stressed.1

There are multiple ways for workers to make physical and mental health a priority. Start with the basics.

Eat healthy

It’s likely you’ll eat a meal during the workday. Try to limit eating out, when calories, saturated fat, and sodium can be hard to control. Instead, pack a lunch that includes fruits and vegetables — which don’t always show up in breakfast meals — and eat appropriately sized portions.

“Control your eating destiny by making your own meals,” said Dr. Jeffrey R. Harris, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A, a professor in the department of health systems and population health at the University of Washington.  “Realize that every calorie counts.”

Harris suggests making a sandwich with whole-wheat bread, little or no mayonnaise, and generous amounts of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. At any meal, select proteins that are lower in saturated fat, such as chicken or fish. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages including sodas or coffees loaded with cream and sugar.

Keep moving

Find ways to build physical activity into your workday to improve your cardiovascular health, which also impacts your brain health, helping you think and problem-solve.2 “The benefits of exercise are huge,” noted Harris, who serves on the American Heart Association’s Workplace Health Steering Committee.

If you drive to work, Harris suggests parking farther away. He parks his car a mile from his office so that he gets in a two-mile roundtrip walk daily. Taking the stairs instead of an elevator is another excellent way to boost physical activity.

The American Heart Association recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. That’s 30 minutes, five days a week, and it can include walking, which requires no special equipment or gym fees. Muscle-strengthening activity is recommended twice a week.3

If your job requires sitting for long periods, move around every now and then to reduce sedentary time. “Take an ‘exercise snack’ of 10 minutes,” Harris suggested, referring to a short burst of physical activity. Instead of snacking on food, pop outside and walk around the building.

Stop smoking

It’s best to quit smoking earlier in life, but quitting has health benefits at any age. It reduces the risk of premature death and can add up to 10 years to life expectancy. It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and decreases the financial burden on smokers and the overall healthcare system.4

“If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is stop, bar none,” Harris said. “Quitting on your own is difficult, so seeking help can improve chances of success.”

Smoking cessation programs can help and are often paid for by workplace health plans. A plan might include nicotine replacement medication, other smoking-cessation medications, and counseling. Quitline offers smokers in every state access to coaching and resources through the North American Quitline Consortium.5

Get routine health screenings

Health insurance plans usually cover free annual exams and basic screenings. Make sure these are up to date.

Simple essential measures, such as checking blood pressure and cholesterol, typically occur at regular checkups.6 Screenings for some diseases should be done periodically, depending on your age. For example, breast and colon cancer screening are recommended for people in their 40s and older.7

If you have heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic conditions, go to regular medical appointments and take medication as prescribed. “If you’re experiencing medication side effects, talk with your healthcare professional, who may consider a different prescription,” Harris said.

Stay current on vaccines

Keep up with your COVID-19 vaccines. If you’ve received an initial vaccine round but haven’t had a COVID booster shot yet, schedule one. “You can skip straight to the Omicron booster that’s available now,” Harris said.

Get your flu shot. The flu is around every year, and it may spread more quickly with everyone living their lives in public again. Now is the time to be protected.

The Northern Hemisphere usually follows the Southern Hemisphere in flu season severity, and the Southern Hemisphere had a difficult season this year. That means the U.S. flu season could come early and be aggressive.8

Know your workplace health benefits

Find out if your employer has a health savings account (HSA), health reimbursement account (HRA), or flexible spending account. A health savings account lets you save up pre-tax money to pay for qualified medical expenses like deductibles and co-pays. However, you can only contribute to an HSA if you have a high-deductible health insurance plan, so check to see if yours is HSA-eligible.9

An HRA is funded by the employer. Workers receive tax-free reimbursement for qualified medical expenses up to a certain amount each year.10

A flexible spending account allows you to set aside pre-tax money from your paycheck up to a certain annual limit. Then it can be withdrawn from that account to cover healthcare co-pays, deductibles, drugs, and certain medical equipment.11

Learning from the pandemic

The pandemic led some people to engage in unhealthy habits. “That included drinking too much alcohol12 or even taking opioids, which are killing people,” 13 Harris said, noting that these behaviors might stick around as workers return to the office.

“It’s clear the pandemic negatively impacted mental health for many people who juggled work and multiple personal duties while staying home,” he added.14 If you need help, find out about the mental health and substance abuse benefits your workplace provides. Also talk with your employer about whether they can modify your work life to better balance with your home life and personal needs.

“The pandemic reminded us that when you’re sick, don’t go into the office and risk infecting others,” Harris warned. It’s also a good idea to wear a face mask for a few days when returning to work after a contagious illness.

Those who developed a healthier lifestyle during the pandemic — perhaps by using their previous commute time to exercise — should find ways to continue. Look for an on-site exercise class at the office or a group to promote healthy eating. If you prefer doing things on your own, phone apps can assist in reaching and tracking health goals.

Step by step, you can improve your health at work and in all parts of your life.

Things to consider

  •  If you’re a smoker, take advantage of a smoking cessation program offered through your company’s health plan.
  • Stay up to date with COVID and flu vaccines. If you got the initial COVID-19 shots but not a booster, consider getting one right away.
  • Instead of a food break at work, have an “exercise snack” – a short burst of physical activity.


1State of the Global Workforce: 2022 Report,” Gallup, accessed online September 2022

2Physical Activity Boosts Brain Health,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 2021

3How much physical activity do you need?” American Heart Association, March 2021

4Benefits of Quitting,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 2020

5What is a Quitline?” North American Quitline Consortium, accessed online September 2022

6How to Keep Tabs on Blood Pressure and Cholesterol,” WebMD, April 2022

7American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer,” American Cancer Society, March 2022

8Best plan to fight flu in 2022 and 2023? Get your flu vaccine early this fall,” UCHealth Today, September 2022

9Health Savings Account (HSA),” Healthcare.gov, accessed online September 2022

10Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA),” Healthcare.gov, accessed online September 2022

11Using a Flexible Spending Account (FSA),” Healthcare.gov, accessed online September 2022

12Podcast: Pandemic fuels use of alcohol, opioids,” Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, May 2022

13Increase in Fatal Drug Overdoses Across the United States Driven by Synthetic Opioids Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 2020

14COVID-19 and your mental health,” Mayo Clinic, November 2021

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