From the May 2000 issue of Startups

Working out of your home may seem like such an ideal situation, you know there's got to be a catch somewhere. For some homebased entrepreneurs, that catch is the phenomenon known as the "freshman 15." Just like first-year college students who gain weight from bountiful buffets at the dorm and junk-filled vending machines just downstairs, these business owners complain that an office just one step away from the kitchen can lead to an expanding waistline.

Maybe you recognize the syndrome. You're bored. There aren't any diversions such as chatting with colleagues or a visit to the water cooler. So you start contemplating that leftover lasagna from dinner last night. Or perhaps you head kitchen-ward with virtuous thoughts of a diet soda, only to find yourself eyeing the cherry cheesecake sitting next to that Diet Coke.

For some, the effects can be both expensive and lingering. Sandi, who runs her desktop publishing company from her home, can attest to that.

"When I was working in an office with colleagues, I always had people to talk to when I was worried or bored. I used to walk with a work friend at noon. And of course I never worried about how frequently or how much I'd get paid," recalls Sandi (who declined to give her last name).

When she resigned to start her homebased business, however, life changed dramatically. "I felt isolated, worried about finances, and wondered if I'd made the right decision," Sandi says. "And instead of visiting with an office buddy or walking into the break room for some tea or water, the only handy diversion was the kitchen."

Seeking companionship and comfort, Sandi says she "found a new friend: Sara Lee. Pound cake and banana cake filled that gap. And of course Sara Lee's best buddies, Ben & Jerry, were great company, too."

Six months and 15 pounds later, Sandi was delighted when her business began to expand. The accompanying expanse of her waistline, however, didn't please her. She's now celebrating her "sophomore year" in business-but she's still battling the bulge that came during her first year. "I've had to buy all new clothes," she says ruefully.

Annaliese Furnas is a success coach, speaker and trainer who operates her business, Balanced Life Design, from her home in San Francisco. Although as a work expert, she knows the dangers of working exclusively from home, such as overeating or not exercising, she admits, "There have been times when that's been touch and go [for me]."

She's careful to plan her shopping and cooking each week around her schedule. "If it's going to be a heavy week, then I'll set some time aside during the weekend to prepare meals that can be quickly heated in the microwave or eaten on the run," says Furnas, 38. "That way I'm not always reaching for fast food or ignoring proper nutrition."

Eating Your Way Through Boredom and Stress?

Those of us who tend to use food as more than a source of fuel-seeking cookies when we need comfort, almonds for amusement and raisin-and-rum ripple ice cream as a reward-are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. When I was a child, I remember my mother, a psychologist, working on a report at home. "Hmm, I think I'll make a cup of tea. I need a break; I hate writing these reports," she'd say, wandering from her office into the kitchen where I sat doing my homework. "Some of those chocolate chip cookies would go well with this," she would add thoughtfully, filling a plate and returning to her office.

Half an hour would pass, and my mother would return. "Is there any of that pistachio ice cream left in the freezer?" Mom would ask hopefully. "I've got to get myself to finish this, and that's just what I need."

With this tendency in my genes, I need to be careful when I work at home or I won't be able to wear my designer jeans. And I confess that when I first began to write at home, I trekked frequently to my new buddy, the refrigerator. Remembering Sandi's experience, however, I decided to devote some time to researching just how I could avoid the dreaded "freshman 15."

I discovered it's possible to work at home without gaining weight, as long as you: A. Take time to make a plan and stick to it with regard to refrigerator recreation, and B. Incorporate exercise into your work day. An important caution here: Before you change your diet and/or exercise regime, be sure to check with your health-care provider. Your mileage may vary, and every suggestion described here may not necessarily apply to every body.

Steering Clear of Temptation

Tips for what I call "kitchen avoidance":

  • Plan ahead. If possible, rent or buy a mini refrigerator and a microwave or hot plate for your home office. Stock the refrigerator with bottled water, low-calorie drinks like vegetable juice, and coffee creamer. Put a stash of coffee or tea in your office. Limit yourself to the beverages kept only in your office. No room or money for a refrigerator? Get an insulated ice chest.
  • When it's mealtime, move out of the office and fix yourself a relaxed, sit-down, nutritional lunch (or mini-meal, if you like a morning and/or afternoon snack.) Have vegetables or a salad, and protein (such as sliced turkey breast or tuna) on whole-grain bread with mustard. It doesn't take long to fix. A cup of instant soup (not the cream kind, which is generally the most caloric: Check those labels!) can make a good, simple snack, as can carrot and celery sticks or a sliced apple with a small slice of low-fat cheese.
  • Even if you're not seeing clients, avoid wearing those comfy, loose sweatpants day after day. They make it alarmingly easy to ignore any weight gain because your clothes always fit. Wear jeans or other outfits that have a waistband. If it doesn't zip or fasten, you know you need to re-examine your food and exercise plan.

Bodies in Motion

Which leads us to. . .exercise. Yes, the "e" word. Recently both the Surgeon General and Health and Human Services Director recommended that adults should engage in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day.

The good news: Researchers have discovered that those 30 minutes of exercise can be broken up into 10-minute intervals. So even if you're short on time, you don't have to short-change yourself when it comes to getting fit. For example, suppose you need to mail a letter. Check your watch. Now walk briskly to the nearest mailbox and, if you need more exercise to accumulate those 10 minutes, walk all the way around the block to return.

Enjoy watching the evening news? Go ahead-but jump rope during every commercial break. Or invest in a stationary bike and exercise your heart and mind at the same time.

Annaliese Furnas succeeds in meeting her goal of taking daily exercise breaks by planning them into her day. Her tip: "I usually set a kitchen timer and place it in the room right outside my home office so I have to get up to turn it off. That's a trigger for me to go for a walk or pop an exercise tape in the VCR."

Another homebased entrepreneur, Becky Bace, runs her own network security consulting company, Infidel Inc., from the Scotts Valley, California, home she shares with her business partner, Terri Gilbert. Her tip for incorporating exercise into a busy day? Get a dog or live in an area where you have easy access to attractive walking areas-Bace takes walks in a nearby redwood forest or drives to Santa Cruz's seaside walking paths.

"Our dog [a 13-year old Border Collie] is insistent about taking periodic walks. Of course, the fact that we live in [an area with] stunning surroundings and good weather helps a lot, too," says Bace, 45, who moved to California two years ago and uses her family home in Baltimore as an East Coast base. "It was much harder to get myself to exercise in Baltimore, where the weather was often too hot or cold for comfort. There are days when I skip exercising-for instance, when I have client meetings or conference appearances-and I invariably feel worse."

No More Excuses

But what if you don't have a dog or you live in a section of the country where it's too rainy/cold/hot for comfortable walking? If you're hoping those facts excuse you from acquiring an entrepreneurial exercise regime, think again. Consider these ways of working exercise into your day:

  • Follow Furnas' method and use an exercise video for your workout breaks. Regardless of the weather, you can exercise. And the increasing number of fitness videos available means you can enjoy variety. One of the best online sites to purchase these videos at is Collage Video, which offers fitness videos for all types of workouts, from stretch to cross-training to dance.
  • Invest in a health club membership. Make sure the gym offers the types of equipment and features you like. For example, if you're a beginning exerciser, you'll want to look for a gym with certified fitness trainers. If you enjoy taking classes, such as aerobics or yoga, check out the course schedule. Then schedule in a tri-weekly visit to your gym.

Sandi, who has gradually started to lose some of the "entrepreneurs' extra," as she refers to her weight gain, sets her alarm for 7 each morning and lays out her gym attire the night before. "That way, I get up, get dressed and go. I discovered that if I waited until the afternoon or evening [to exercise], it was too easy to come up with excuses," Sandi says. An unexpected bonus of her gym membership: "I've met other women and men with home offices, so I don't feel so isolated anymore."

  • Purchase exercise equipment for your home. It can be as simple and inexpensive as a jump rope, a few weights and a single fitness video, or as complex as a stair climber, recumbent exercise bike and a variety of weight-lifting machines.

Stretch Those Muscles

But suppose you've dutifully driven off to the gym in the morning, returned home and had an intense day at the computer. It's mid-afternoon and even though you aren't hungry, your shoulders and neck hurt and you need a break. Seeking entertainment, you dreamily contemplate those pretty frosted cupcakes left over from your daughter's Girl Scout meeting.

Quick! Before you succumb, take a virtual visit to one of these online stretch-at-your-desk sites:

  • InteliHealth offers a series of "deskercises" for every part of your body. Scroll down to Health Resources and click the Deskercise link.
  • Ergoaerobics will banish those aches and pains. And if you're concerned about such potential problems as carpal tunnel and repetitive stress syndrome, this is definitely a Web site you should check out.

Joanne Eglash has written for publications and Web sites ranging from Shape Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News and Tech Week to KidsHealth.org, CareerLink, Oxygen.com and Netsurfer Digest.