Advertisement

The nine most unhealthy WFH habits – and how to fix them

snacks around laptop on bed
Bad habits can easily develop while working from home

Those of us who regularly work from home are familiar with the pitfalls of easy-to-access snacks in the kitchen and a lack of activity when our commute consists of a few steps from the bedroom to the home office.

Now, new research from King’s College London has confirmed that almost half of people who moved to home-working during the pandemic gained weight. They were also more prone to snacking, drinking and smoking, although they did eat healthier home-cooked food.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. A survey by Zoe, the personal nutrition company, which looked at health behaviour pre- and post-pandemic, showed huge variability between how people responded to working from home. Although some ate more and exercised less, others used the time they gained from not commuting to be more physically active and cook from scratch.

Even though many of us are going back to the office and full-time remote workers are decreasing, the latest data from the ONS shows that hybrid working is here to stay, as 44 per cent of us worked from home at least some of the time in 2023, and half of UK employers are now offering part-time remote work.

That being the case, learning how to avoid falling down the many rabbit holes of WFH that lead to weight gain is a skill we need to learn to avoid that extra stone. Here’s how to make working at home work for you.

The pitfall: getting out of bed too late

It can be tempting to have a lie-in when the boss isn’t beckoning, but seasoned home-workers know that doing this regularly is a road to ruin, with the research showing that inconsistent sleep times lead to tiredness and over-eating.

The solution: head outside for a short morning ‘commute’

Social jet lag, where our sleep is inconsistent, has been shown to lead to greater food intake. Dr Faye Begeti is a neurology doctor, neuroscientist and the author of  The Phone Fix: The Brain-Focused Guide to Building Healthy Digital Habits and Breaking Bad Ones. She advises getting up at a regular time every day and going outside in the morning.

She says:  “I actively seek out natural daylight in the mornings to regulate the master clock in my brain. This master clock controls the release of hormones that regulate alertness (cortisol) and sleepiness (melatonin).

“Natural morning light is 10 times stronger outside than inside, and is crucial for synchronising this internal clock, as is a predictable time of sleep and waking. “Without these, the clock becomes mistimed and you’re more likely to feel tired and reach for sugary food and drinks.”

If you’re a night owl, you may prefer to get up a bit later, but make sure it’s within the same hour each day. Open the curtains and treat yourself to a short walk to get a coffee or smoothie, or just a brisk stroll around the block.

girl in sunlight in bed
Seek out natural daylight in the mornings to regulate the master clock in your brain - Moment RF

The pitfall: eating a late, large breakfast at your desk

A rushed late breakfast al desco is easily done, but if we eat too late, hunger hormones and mindless eating are likely to mean that we consume too much.

The solution: plan all meals in advance and only eat in the kitchen

Emma Bardwell, a nutritionist, says planning your meals is the secret to not gaining weight at home.

“If you leave meals to chance, decision fatigue can throw you off track. Plan your meals and schedule when you’ll eat them. Having a routine helps avoid the constant grazing and snacking that often accompanies working from home, and gives your day structure,” she says.

It’s also important, if possible, to make sure the place where we eat is separate from where we work. Dr Federica Amati is a medical scientist and nutritionist. “Behavioural research says that the things that we make easy are the things we will do the most. So we need to make sure we don’t have easy access to snacks where we’re working. If you can, work in a different room from the kitchen and don’t eat there. Then, if you’re going to eat, you have to stand up and move to the kitchen,” she says.

Everything in proportion ... portion control is important when WFH
Portion control is important when WFH - Getty

The pitfall: not getting up from your desk (because there’s no one to talk to)

In an office, there is more chance of incidental exercise as you stand up to go to a meeting, the printer, or just to gossip with a colleague.

The solution: stand up every 45 minutes and schedule exercise with a buddy

Don’t sit for more than 45 minutes or so at a time. Dr Amati cites research that says sitting for long periods actually fools our body into thinking we’re lighter and therefore stimulates hunger. It also reduces blood flow to your kidneys and can lead to high blood pressure. Stand up to take a call, do your exercise snack, go for a walk, buy an affordable standing desk from Ikea, or do a household chore you’ve been putting off.

Reducing isolation is also important. “When you look at different communities, the ones that live in shared households and are socially supported and connected to others are significantly healthier and live longer than those who are isolated,” says Dr Sarah Berry.

One of the ways I like to see friends is to combine it with exercise. Go for a dog walk during your lunch break, a quick swim or join a local exercise class.

friends on yoga mats
Combine seeing friends with exercise to get away from your desk - Digital Vision

The pitfall: eating a mid-morning snack because you’re bored and it’s there

At home the kitchen is only steps away, there’s nobody to judge you for grazing all the time, and it can be tempting to eat when you’re really just in need of a break.

The solution: do an ‘exercise snack’ instead

Lavina Mehta, a personal trainer, has popularised the concept of an “exercise snack” – short bursts of exercise throughout the day to keep us moving, which range from one to 10 minutes long, like busting out 10 quick squats, for instance.

She has multiple examples on her YouTube channel to try.

Exercise-snacking can reduce long hours of sitting, which can lead to slow metabolism, poor blood sugar and a decrease in the body’s ability to break down fat. Similarly, Amanda Baracho, a pilates teacher and co-founder of X Club in London, suggests a quick stretch to reset your posture: stand up, squeeze your glutes, reach your arms up to the sky, and lean right and left to stretch your rib cage.

“When you’re sitting for a long time, you tend to hunch – a bad posture that is not good for your body or mental health. This stretch reverses that posture,” she says. Wall Pilates is also a good workout to try at home.

Dalton Wong, a personal trainer with celebrity clients, recommends three sessions of 15 minutes’ exercise a day.

“If I’m at home in the morning I do flexibility and mobility exercises; at lunch I do some strength training, like lunges and squats; and then at the end of the day I do a HIIT workout when my Zooms are done and it doesn’t matter if I get sweaty.” He has examples on his website, or find more ideas on YouTube.

girl doing yoga in living room
Three sessions of 15 minutes’ exercise a day is recommended to reduce long periods of sitting - E+

The pitfall: hoovering up leftovers for lunch

Eating leftovers is one of the joys of working from home, but portion control can be easily forgotten when tucking into last night’s lasagne.

The solution: improve the ‘health architecture’ of your house

Dr Amati suggests improving our “health architecture” by having plenty of healthy food and snacks at eye level in the kitchen. “Just because we’re at home, we don’t necessarily have an hour to prepare food, so fill your home with ready-to-go healthy meals and snacks.

“Put them at eye level in the fridge, or the middle shelf on countertops. You could have chia pots, overnight oats, hard-boiled eggs, prepared salads, natural yogurt and kefir. I have three jars of mixed nuts that are easy to grab. Dark chocolate is a good treat. At the same time, make sure cakes, biscuits and crisps are put away, out of sight. Make it easy for yourself.”

Wong portion-controls his leftovers at home. “I purposefully make extra dinner, but then when I’ve eaten and I’m full, I put a portion in Tupperware for the next day. If you take a portion when you’re hungry, you’ll have more and this way you don’t get the leftover tray out the next day and eat it all.”

He portions his snacks too, buying sliced cheese and having just one slice, or a small bag of popcorn.  If you want a treat, go for a one-person tub of Häagen-Dazs or a 15g bar of Green & Black’s, so you don’t snack to excess.

healthy snack cupboard
Fill your home with healthy snacks - E+

The pitfall: eating while you’re prepping food for dinner

This often happens when cooking early for the kids, or because you haven’t had a healthy snack to stave off hunger.

The solution: eat early with your kids or practise mindful eating

Dr Amati suggests eating early as a family. “Ideally your kids would eat healthily too, and it’s important to sit down together, so if that’s at 5.30 or 6pm, that’s fine, you can have a snack later if you’re hungry, but try not to eat after 9pm as it disrupts our circadian rhythm and insulin.”

Practising mindful eating can also help with mindless grazing. She says: “Only eat sitting down when not distracted or looking at a screen. Eating quickly means you are likely to consume more, and slowing down and appreciating your food means you’re more likely to stop when full.”

family eating together
Eating early as a family can stop you grazing before dinner - E+

The pitfall: lying in bed after dinner and doing more work

An easy trap to fall into.

The solution: give your brain a break with firm boundaries between work and winding down

Dr Begeti says research shows that we don’t have unlimited mental energy and that our bedroom needs to be associated with relaxation rather than stress. “Studies show a reduction of blood flow in the prefrontal cortex after six hours of complex work, and this is the part of our brain that underlies our willpower. Becoming mentally fatigued during the day and having inadequate breaks might cause binge eating and affect your sleep.

“Similarly, our brain is an association machine and it’s important not to link sources of stress to a place where we should relax. If you work in a nomadic way, then think about placing a few objects that signify work to create a zone and putting them away afterwards to maintain boundaries.”

At the end of the working day, down-regulate your system with a fake evening “commute”. This might be 15 minutes of exercise, a walk around the block or just shutting your office door.

“One of the problems is that the line between home and work can be blurred and that affects your sleep quality, so it’s important to make sure you put boundaries and transitions in place, ” says Dr Amati.

The pitfall: the computer is everywhere

With portable laptops and phones, it seems that work follows us wherever we go, which can lead to stress and burnout and affect sleep, which in turn causes us to eat more.

The solution: get a desktop and don’t read social media or work emails on your phone after the working day

Working at a desktop computer can make it easier to shut off from the day and emails. Yet there is still the problem of work emails pinging in on our phones out of hours.

Dr Begeti says she does look at her phone at bedtime but is careful what she consumes. “I don’t worry about blue light from my phone affecting my sleep – it’s not as big a deal as previously thought. One study showed that reading on a blue-light-emitting device meant people fell asleep a mere 10 minutes later.

“What’s more important is the content. Stressful content releases cortisol – this is both a stress and an alertness hormone (as it makes biological sense that we need to be alert at times of stress) and this affects sleep. So I steer clear from checking work emails, social media or the news.”

woman on laptop on sofa
Work follows us wherever we go - E+

The pitfall: smoking to ease stress because there’s no one to tell you you can’t

Relieving stress can be tricky at home, and without any no-smoking rules, it can be tempting to have a quick puff or a drink to mark the end of the day.

The solution: try a relaxing breathing exercise instead

Deep breathing is a known stress reliever, and can help bring your mind into the present rather than worrying about the past or future. Bacharo recommends taking a long, deep breath in, and then, as you breathe out, imagine you are blowing out a candle far away.

Smoking is as much about the habit and taking a deeper breath as the nicotine,” she says. “When you’re scared, you start breathing quickly and go into fight-or-flight mode. But a longer, deeper breath can change your whole physiology and connect your mind and body.”

Recommended

Easy yoga moves to do at your desk in just three minutes

Read more