Best Exercises to Do at Your Desk
What kind of job do you have? That question isn’t asking about what your resume outlines, but instead, is more concerned with whether you have a job that involves moving or not. Most of you will likely be in the category of the latter, sitting at a desk, where your fingers are the only things burning calories as they plow through an infinite list of emails. And if that is you, pay attention.
The field of sedentary behaviour research was created to investigate the effects of our sitting existence (commuting, TV time, social media scrolling) and what it has found is frightening. Study after study has shown that the less we move, the greater the chance we have of experiencing a poor quality of health and even dying. With many Americans clocking in six to eight hours a day of immobility, this affects a LOT of us.
Thankfully, research has also found that 1-2 minutes of movement every hour can lessen the detrimental effects. So, let’s start with focusing on work and what you can do to shake things up there. Ideally, you want to do most of the following exercises at least twice a day or whenever the craving hits. And don’t feel shy about trying these out with your family at home as well.
Exercise 1 – Don't Be at Your Desk
This is the easiest one: get UP from your desk and walk. Go get a tea, a glass of water, or just do a lap around the office. And do it more than twice during your day (i.e. more than just at lunch and home time). Or, if your company is progressive, give a standing desk a try, or sit on a large exercise ball for a couple of hours to get your muscles working!
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Exercise 2 – Overhead Stretch
This is a great one for bringing some relief to your upper back and shoulders, especially if you type a lot. The easiest way to do it is to stretch both of your arms above your head, clasp your hands together if you’d like, and take in some nice big breaths. You can also lean from one side to the other, while holding for at least 10-15 seconds/side, to wake up the large muscles of your back.
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Exercise 3 – Upper Back Stretch
This one flows nicely from the stretch listed above. Pull your arms, with your hands still clasped to create tension, straight out in front of you, arching your mid and upper back slightly. Take a number of slow, deep breaths, and try to expand the space between your spine and your shoulder blades.
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Exercise 4 – Chest Stretch
Sit forward slightly in your chair and clasp your hands behind your back. With your arms straight, roll your shoulders back and gently pull down with your hands. You should feel a stretch across the front of your chest and shoulders. This is a lovely way to reverse all the time you spend typing, which causes your shoulders to roll forward, and your chest muscles to shorten. This also causes weakness in the muscles of your upper back, resulting in poor posture over time.
Exercise 5 – Wrist Rolls
For those of you who type, your wrists and hands will love you for this one! Allow your arms to drop down by your sides. Next, gently roll your hands towards your body for about 5 turns, and then reverse the direction, rolling away from yourself. You can also gently squeeze your wrists with the opposite hands, slowly moving up and down from your fingertips into your forearms. Shaking out your hands at the end can feel great as well.
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Exercise 6 – Like a Prayer
Bend your elbows and bring your palms together in front of you in a prayer position. While keeping your hands pressed firmly against each other (from the tips of your fingers to the base of your palms), lower them so the large joint of your thumbs line up with the bottom of your breast bone and your fingers are pointed upwards. Your hands can be touching your body, or be one to two inches in front of it, with your forearms parallel to the ground. There should be a slight stretching sensation running throughout the insides of your wrists and hands.
For a deeper stretch, flip your hands so your fingers are pointing towards the floor instead. Over time, work towards your hands resting flush against your body.
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Exercise 7 – Core Squeezes
When you stay in a seated position for any amount of time with your back resting against your chair, your core muscles begin to weaken from lack of use. To wake your core up, slide your bum forward in your chair about an inch or two, so that your back has nothing to lean on, and sit up straight. Next, squeeze your abdominal muscles inwards, drawing your bellybutton back towards your spine and hold until you feel you must stop. Take a break and then repeat.
Do this exercise as frequently as you can during the day. Make sure to sit without resting your back on your chair for a couple of minutes every hour to keep your core muscles awake.
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Exercise 8 – Head Alignment
When you are looking down at your computer screen, your head is jutted forward slightly, causing the muscles of your upper back and neck to engage for a length of time they weren’t designed to. A nice and simple stretch for the neck is to drop your head to one side, bringing the ear closer to your shoulder. There is no need to do anything extra – just let the weight of your noggin create the stretch in the muscles on the side of your neck.
Hold this for at least 20-30 seconds, remembering to breathe, and then slowly lift your head and let it drop to the other side. Next, let your head fall forward and slowly shake your head from side-to-side to stretch the back of your neck and down between your shoulder blades.
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Exercise 9 – Lower Back Stretch
This one might cause some possible teasing from your colleagues, but your lower back and hips will love you for it. If anyone says anything, tell them you’re looking for your pen … or your sanity. Lean forward and allow the weight of your torso to rest on the top of your thighs. Allow your head and neck to drop forward between your knees and let your arms hang down by your side. If you like, you can clasp your hands beneath you and pull down gently to increase the stretch. Hold this for at least 30 seconds, breathing deeply into the mid and lower back.
When you are finished come up very slowly, pushing your hands against the tops of your legs to help you if necessary. Depending on how tight your hips and back are, you might not be able to have full contact between your stomach and legs, but that is OK. If you can’t, make sure that your core is engaged by pulling your belly button up towards your spine to protect your lower back, and rest your forearms against your thighs to support the weight of your torso.
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Exercise 10 – Hip TLC
Another issue with sitting all the time is that our hips get very tight. A nice way to stretch them is to cross one leg over the other, resting your lower leg (right above your ankle) on top of the opposite knee. Your crossed leg should make the shape of a triangle with your other thigh and will be parallel to the ground (depending on how flexible you are and your gender: women will have greater range of motion in this stretch).
If it isn’t parallel, that is okay – don’t force it! If you are parallel and still don’t feel a stretch, lean forward slightly with your upper body until you feel a stretch in the hip of your bent leg, holding in your core and maintaining a flat back. Hold this for at least 30-45 seconds and switch legs.
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Exercise 11 – Wake up Those Thighs
You might want to back your chair out a bit for this because you are going to be extending your leg under your desk. To start, point your toes towards the ceiling, and raise your lower leg by flexing the top of your thigh. Your whole leg should now be in a straight line. Depending on how strong your legs and core are, you might be able to have your straight leg perpendicular to your torso.
If you find it very challenging, or your lower back begins to round to try and accomplish this position, keep your foot closer to the ground. You can either hold this position (do it until your thigh muscles begin to quiver) or raise and lower your leg until your thigh tires. Make sure you switch legs. You can alternate like a can-can girl, or just do one leg at a time.
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Exercise 12 – Glute Glory
The glutes are the largest muscles in our body, meaning they have the potential for great things and a lot of power. But sitting on them all the time requires little of this. Some would even say that being sedentary all the time causes them to not only weaken, but to flatten and, gasp, get wider! Urban legend or not, these muscles need to be used because they provide stability in the pelvis for walking and running, and also protect our lower backs from injury. If you’re feeling a bit shy, you might want to wait until your desk neighbors are away or otherwise preoccupied. Thankfully it is simple and only requires you to squeeze your bum muscles.
You can either hold the squeeze, or repeatedly flex and let go. The former might draw less attention, because the latter will make it appear like you keep growing and shrinking to anyone who sees you. But don’t let that keep you from giving this a try. Your glutes (and jeans!) will thank you.
Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.
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