Exercises You Can Do at Your Desk
Squeeze these in when you don’t have time to get to the gym.
Sometimes, it feels impossible to squeeze exercise into your day. The mornings are stressful and rushed, or maybe you’re someone who likes to sleep in (we get it). And then, after work, you’re so exhausted that the idea of running to the gym feels...insane. If you’re finding it difficult to make room for movement through your day, consider doing it at your desk.
According to one analysis, the average adult in the United States sits for an average of 6.5 hours each day. Many of those hours are spent at work, so it makes sense that doing exercises at your desk could help decrease that number. When people sit for too long, their muscles and bones can weaken, they might have poorer blood circulation or their energy levels plummet from lack of physical activity.
Whether at an office or at home, most people have to go to work every day. So why not kill two birds with one stone by getting your exercise and your paycheck at the same time? Read on to learn more about the best exercises to do while working.
What Happens When We Sit for Too Long?
When you sit all day at a desk, your muscles adapt and want to stay in that position. “Your hip flexors and hamstrings will get tight in your lower body, likely pulling on your low back muscles and causing chronic pain,” says Head Trainer at Optimal Health Alliance Rob Bellamy. “Your upper back will be in trouble, too, because your head shoots forward and your shoulders are likely rounded forward, tightening your chest and front of your neck.”
“Our bodies thrive on movement and exercise, and it’s very difficult to get adequate amounts when working at a desk for eight to twelve hours straight,” says personal trainer Chris "Protein" Leach. Leach says that sitting at a desk too long causes a lack of non-exercise thermogenesis (NEAT), which is the energy burned when doing exercise that is not directly related to sports or working out. Things like walking down the hall, fidgeting and completing tasks like gardening or cleaning all fall into this category. Lower NEAT levels make it easier to gain weight, thus contributing to obesity and obesity-related problems like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Get Up Often
If you don’t have time for exercises at your desk, at the very least you should be standing and moving around often. Bellamy suggests a quick stretch every half an hour. Mix that with a short walk to the bathroom or mailroom every hour. Walk to your friend’s cubicle or go get a drink of water. If you have access to the outdoors, go for a walk around the block to not only get blood moving, but also reap the benefits of nature. Set a timer or reminder to help you get into the habit of moving every hour.
“The best exercises to do at a desk all involve strengthening the back of your body,” says Bellamy. “For your upper body, try leaning against a wall with the back of your hands against the wall and by your side. Imagine what making a snow angel looks like, and mimic that movement on the wall. Do 1-3 sets of 10-15 reps, focusing on squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping the backs of your hands on the wall.”
For your lower body, Bellamy says that lunges are great for hamstrings and glutes. He’s a big fan of reverse and lateral lunges—and for different reasons. “I think reverse lunges—where you step backwards instead of forward—are a little easier on the knees, especially if you’re not used to doing lunges. Lateral lunges—where you step to the side—are a more functional move. Try the same set and rep range, 1-3 sets of 10-15 lunges on each side.”
Stretch & Relax
“The neck, hip flexors and pecs commonly get tight from prolonged sitting,” says Leach. “Stretching and relaxing these muscles, in conjunction with strengthening exercises, is an effective way to get in some movement and counteract these negative effects.”
Doorway Pec Stretch
Find a doorway and place your elbows and forearms on either side of the door frame. Step forward while keeping your forearms and elbows on the doorframe until you feel a gentle pull through the front of your chest and shoulders. Take three deep breaths focusing on relaxing as you do so and then take a break. Repeat 2-3 times.
Start by standing up straight. Gently retract your head with the assistance of two fingers placed just above your lip. Do not look up or look down, just let your head retract back as if towards an imaginary headrest. It will feel as though you are making a double chin. Hold it for 5-10 seconds and then relax. Repeat 5-10 times for 2-3 sets.
Start by going into a cervical retraction (see above), but then slowly look up as high as you can comfortably. Hold for 2-3 seconds at the top and then slowly come down. Maintain the retracted head position to the best of your ability throughout the exercise. Repeat 5-10 times for 2-3 sets.
Take a split stance, but have your back knee planted in the corner of a couch or chair (must be heavy enough that it won't move when you gently push on it). Your other foot will be planted right out in front of the couch or chair to stabilize you. Engage your glutes and core, and then slowly push your torso forward, while remaining upright until you feel a stretch in your hip flexor.
Think About Desk Equipment
When it comes to exercises you can do while working, it can be helpful to invest in a few small pieces of equipment to keep at your desk. Leach recommends keeping a set of resistance bands in a desk drawer, which will allow you to significantly expand the number of exercises you can do right at your desk. “You'll be able to work every major muscle group pretty much anywhere, even with limited space,” he says.
If you have a home office, consider upgrading your biggest piece of office furniture: your desk. “The best piece of equipment you could get for your desk is a new desk,” says Bellamy. “A desk that converts to standing is ideal. Then, you can do your work both seated and standing. If you really want to do more, getting a treadmill desk would allow you to keep moving while you work. Other than a new desk, using a physio ball as a chair will force you to move around a little and remind you to sit up tall/engage your core throughout the day.”