Lab-fab abs and post-lab flab

And bend and stretch and rack those tips and run to the water bath to rescue your samples and walk to the fridge to put them away and lift that big heavy bottle of isopropanol onto your bench and run to the store room to get more tips and rack those tips…

When I worked at the bench, it didn’t feel like a particularly active job, especially when compared to Mr E Man’s. I never got winded, or came home feeling physically exhausted, or found myself with sore joints or aching muscles the day after a long experiment. All those seemingly little things really added up to significant calorie expenditure, though, a fact I didn’t appreciate until after I moved from a postdoc to a desk job and pretty much immediately starting putting on weight (OK, so all the food that seemed to pretty much constantly be on offer in that office – leftover sandwiches and cookies from meetings, birthday cakes, random baking donated by awesome colleagues – didn’t help, either. Those lab health & safety guidelines can be a real pain in the arse, but banning food from the labs really helps people stay slim!).

Almost everyone else I know who’s made the switch from bench to desk experienced the same phenomenon; sitting at a desk typing and drinking tea just doesn’t burn as many calories as standing at a bench, moving around the lab to use different pieces of equipment, and moving around the building to use the tissue culture suite, dark room, or other labs’ kit. (I’ve also found that sitting all the time has exacerbated the lower back / sacroiliac problems that started in grad school, but that’s a whole other story).

I’m currently on a health kick, and have managed to lose a leeeetle bit of weight1 in the last few weeks, thanks to a revolutionary strategy of consuming fewer calories2 and expending more3. It’s a good start, and my will power has been encouragingly strong as long as I remember to keep my work food stash well stocked with fruit! Now fully aware of how seemingly inconsequential movements add up with repetition, I’m also trying to move around more: I’m taking the stairs instead of the lift; only getting as much water as I need for one cup of tea (rather than filling the whole kettle and boiling it multiple times), so I have to run downstairs to the kitchen and back more often; standing up and stretching once or twice an hour; and I’m thinking of buying a big bouncy ball to sit on instead of a chair.

I’m also thinking of making and marketing a “lab-fab abs” exercise DVD, featuring cheerful, fit and healthy students and postdocs wearing lab coats and performing simulated lab tasks in time to music.

D’ya think it’ll catch on?


1) inferred from better-fitting clothes; I have never owned a set of scales in my life.

2) smaller breakfasts, healthier lunches, no snacks other than fruit (and one cookie or equivalent per week), red meat no more than once every two weeks, no desserts, no alcohol on weeknights if we’re eating in rather than going out (i.e. most weeknights). I eat what I want on Friday nights and on Saturdays.

3) after a few months of laziness I’m starting off with pilates and hand weights, and cycling more often and on hillier routes. I’m planning to re-introduce short runs, circuit training, and swimming over the next few weeks.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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18 Responses to Lab-fab abs and post-lab flab

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    I’ll buy it! Same phenomena for me when I finished my post-doc and chained myself to a desk.

    Mostly for my neck I am doing hourly stretches–people ask me “Can I help?” when they see me seemingly trying to hold up the door frame.

    When on vacation a few weeks ago in Washington, I took the thick rubber strip that I have been using for physical therapy to stay in shape. The therapists showed me that you can close a door on the band and use it for resistance training for the shoulder neck. It was pretty embarrassing to have to call the bell-boy up to our room when I found I couldn’t get the closet door open afterwards…

  2. Catherine says:

    Great title! And well done on your health/willpower success. Nice to be reminded I must be getting some minor exercise after all… though here the combination of moving to the US and actually having money to buy food has resulted in post-lab flab prematurely setting in…
    As for the workout video, well we could always re-dub one of those Lab-y Gaga spoofs!

  3. KristiV says:

    No desserts sounds like torture, but I think I’ll have to go that route, along with the increased exercise. Unfortunately, it’s too damn hot here right now to go running (IMO), so most of my aerobic exercise takes place in the gym (not the same workout on a treadmill or elliptical trainer) or in the pool. I ride the horses on the weekend, but unless I get an early start, it’s too damn hot to do that as well, and if I miss the window, I just work them in the round pen and then cool them off with a bath.

    I’m going to see a sports/rehab medicine physician this week about persistent pain and stiffness in my right knee, which would keep me from running outdoors, even if it weren’t too damn hot. I need to get it sorted before gross anatomy lab (10-20 hours per week standing on a concrete floor) starts, and I’m hoping it’s just something minor like bursitis. I expect to be told to lose some weight, because I should probably be at the low end of “normal weight”, rather than the low end of “overweight.” Fitness-wise I’m fine (I can easily swim a mile at a good pace), but here it’s easy to fool oneself into believing that “low end of overweight” is OK, because there are so many genuinely obese people. However, in my family, even a bit of excess weight can result in diabetes. Ugh.

  4. cromercrox says:

    I feel I should inject a note of cheerful hedonism into this orgy of self-righteous physical fitness. 🙂

    Losing weight doesn’t actually make you live longer – it just seems like it.

    Me? I have found that I have reduced my blood pressure from somewhat high to bang-on normal. I have done this without any effort on my part. I attribute this success to (a) living a very long way away from London (b) getting to that age where one really no longer gives a tinker’s cuss about things that used to make one anxious.

  5. Beth Snow says:

    I used to joke that I gained weight when I started working in Public Health. Because even though my job before this one was a desk job, I took the bus and walked several blocks each way to and from my office (instead of driving like I do now) and I worked on the 6th floor (instead of the 2nd floor like I do now – I’m a dedicated stair climber rather than elevator taker). And those things added up! There also seems to be a lot more treats in my current office compared to my former one.

    I don’t find many ways to get much exercise during my work day (I’m terrible at remembering to get up and stretch), but the half marathon training, and now bootcamp, plus weekly hockey helps. Though I have read that there is evidence that sitting for long stretches of time raises blood sugar, etc., even if you are really active after work, so I really should make more of an effort!

  6. Nina says:

    You never came home from a 14 hour lab experiment feeling worn-out, aching, trembling and hallucinating??? What am I doing wrong???

    The DVD idea reminded me of one of the latest Air NZ safety videos:

  7. nico says:

    Try out the “standing desk” idea. I have been trialling it when I work at home, where I prop up my laptop on the breakfast bar, on top of a pack of nappies to have the screen at a comfortable height. I plan to keep trying it out for a few more weeks before floating the idea at Nature Towers, else I’ll get a ball to sit on (pending Health & Safety approval I guess).

  8. Beth says:

    @Nico – Occupational Health at my office doesn’t allow sitting on an exercise ball, because you could fall off of it! lol! I’d love to get one of those treadmill desks, but I know that there’s no way my work could afford to buy me one!

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Steve, I’m sure they’ve seen it all before! (But did they believe you that you were doing exercises? 😉 )

    Thanks, Catherine! Yes, we should definitely include the lab-themed Gaga covers in the exercise video!

    Kristi: “here it’s easy to fool oneself into believing that “low end of overweight” is OK, because there are so many genuinely obese people.”

    I’m in the same “low end of overweight” zone, but with far fewer obsese people around. My friend once joked that the fastest way to feel thinner is to do is drive south for an hour, and based on my few trips just over the border, she may not be far off…

    I can take or leave desserts and other sweet treats, really, but if there’s a big bowl of salty snacks anywhere near me, I’ll eat every single one unless someone takes them away from me.

    Henry, whatever works! I like London but do feel stressed after a few days in a row there, so moving out was probably what did it!

    Beth, I work in a stunningly asocial office, so there are far fewer treats around than in my first post-lab job. (Having said that we’re having a wee party this afternoon to celebrate the demise of the hated peer review form, but that’s with one person from my department (who only works with us half a day a week) and a whole bunch of people from other departments).

    I’d heard the same thing about desk jobs, even if you’re active before and/or after work. So cycling to work four days a week may not be doing me much good at all. There are no stairs that connect the basement level where the bike room and showers are to the main office floors – you’d have to walk out the back door, and around three sides of the outside of our massive building to the front door, and then up the main stairs – but I do now use the stairs on all trips that don’t involve the basement. I am not letting myself be tempted by “but someone I know is waiting for the elevator so I should stop and say hi and then I may as well just get in” and all the other excuses any more!

    Nina, you just chose the wrong field! No molecular biologists of my acquaintance have ever had to hammer out soil cores, hack through vegetation, risk death by PI-driving-a-four-wheel-drive, or spend half the day inside the fume hood…

    Nico, I’d heard of that but can’t use it at work because I have a standard-sized desk and a desktop computer, but I do like the idea of trying it at home, with a laptop on the kitchen counter. I’m gonna try that!

    I’d also seen the proper standing and treadmill desks. Then I saw the pricetags. Like Beth, there’s no way I’d ever get my hands on one at work!

    I’m not sure if we have a policy on exercise balls as chairs. I know that some of the physicians in the clinical building over the road use them, but I haven’t seen any in my (research only) building. It may be one of those situations where it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, and if they have a serious problem with it, I’ll promise to wear my bike helmet while sitting… or else take the ball home to confuse the cats!

  10. KristiV says:

    @ Cath – My ideal outcome for today’s Musculoskeletal Clinic appointment is that the physician tells me I need to swim at least three times a week, instead of my usual once-per-week 1.1-mile+ swim. If he recommends it as physical therapy, then I can use some of my hundreds of accrued sick leave hours (that’s even after some were subtracted for the university sick leave pool) to swim laps, and nobody can stop me. Ha! Currently I use vacation hours to take time off to swim, because the best time is in the middle of the day (lap swim hours 11:00 to 1:00, weekdays only).

    Of course, if I get a corticosteroid injection instead, I’ll be massively disappointed.

  11. Nina says:

    Cath, I’m not talking soil hammering here, I’m talking 14 hours pipetting and the likes …
    Part of the pain comes from realizing that from those 3 kg of soil per sample, I only need 0.5 g at most (which of course I knew beforehand, but with soils you need to sample generously to account for the vast heterogeneity)
    The other part is from pipetting itself though. My hands are trembling.

  12. Kristi, fingers crossed for workday swimming!

    Nina, in that case, I don’t know what you’re doing wrong. Not enough chocolate, maybe?

    • KristiV says:

      So my official diagnosis, following physical exam and prior to analysis of the three radiographs of my knee, is quadriceps tendonitis and chondromalacia patella … fortunately NOT the kind of injury or degenerative process that would require surgery and/or a “knee replacement”. Yay! Low impact exercise is recommended, so YAY for swimming! Moar swimming!! I also have to go for 8-10 physiotherapy sessions, to address the tendonitis and CMP acutely, and to be trained to do some specific exercises at home. Once the physiotherapist gives me the all clear, I can even go back to running, believe it or not. I have no weight-bearing or stability issues with the knee.

      The great thing is that the physiotherapy will be done at our new clinical building (where I went for my exam today), and that there’s a free shuttle bus from the main campus. I wish I could say that healthcare were so accessible, high-quality, and inexpensive for everyone in the US, but the sad truth is that because I’m an employee of a state health science center/medical school, I’m what you might call “exceptionally privileged” in this regard, The mileage for most other people varies considerably.

  13. bean-mom says:

    Cath, this post cheers me greatly. I feel vaguely guilty over my lack of exercise… though not guilty enough to do much about it. It is soothing to think that I burn at least a few calories through my daily lab circuit of walking from water bath to tissue culture room to lab bench to -80 freezer and back again. Oh, and walking downstairs to buy media and enzymes at consignment. For the third time in a day. Because I forgot to buy everything I needed the first two times around.

  14. ecogeofemme says:

    Ha! This happened to me too. Once I finished my lab work and was writing my thesis full time, I could snack when I wanted and wasn’t nearly as active.

    I read somewhere that you should try to get “exercise snacks” — little bursts of activity throughout the day, even if they are really short. Things like you guys are saying: taking the stairs, stretching, doing a few jumping jacks. Apparently they really add up.

    Lately EGM and I have been making a point to eat at least five servings of fruit and veg each day. We’ve noticed that it has a big positive impact on our diets, mostly because if you eat that much fruit, you don’t have much room for junk food.

  15. chall says:

    I think I gained the most when I wrote my dissortation… all that stress and sitting down, plus running to the lab and finishing up those experiments and oh was it dinner time let’s have some take out…. etc….

    That said, I guess I am currently still in a “lab setting” and not a “real” desk job so I wouldn’t know?! 😉 I mean, there is nothing better (or worse, depending on reference of course) than a full 4 hour stint in the clean lab, dressed up in plastic overalls, booties etc and not a drip of water, snack or bathroom in sight…… no food there….

    (until you get out and notice than some nice co-workers have brought sweets to the break room….)

  16. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Bean-Mom, glad to be of service! And now you can label your forgetfulness as just another part of your fitness regime!

    EGF, I didn’t notice much of a difference while writing up – I was still cycling to my institute every day and joining my labmates for coffee and lunch breaks, which required running up and down the stairs from the library to the break room. Plus I had no money so I was basically eating rice with carrots, onions and soy sauce for most meals!

    I really like the “exercise snacks” idea, and am trying to ramp up that kind of snacking. All actual snacking has been curtailed today via the genius strategy of forgetting to bring my wallet… I’m starving (and I’ve run out of fruit), but I only have 87 cents in change and the cheapest thing in the vending machine is $1.50. Um, yay?

    Chall, you still have to do clean lab work? Yuk.

    No sweets from co-workers today, although a colleague did bring in muffins on Tuesday! But that’s the only sweet treat I’ve had all week.

    OK, now I’m reeeeeeally hungry.

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