Desk Exercises to Stay Fit at Work

Getting fit often tops people’s lists of New Year’s resolutions. Finding time during a busy workday to get fit, especially if you have a desk job, is another matter.

Exercises you do at your desk, however, can get you started on the way to better health. And you don’t have to buy expensive equipment like treadmill desks or exercise ball chairs to add fitness to your daily routine.

Ron DeAngelo, MEd, LAT, FAFS, director of sports performance at UPMC Sports Medicine, recommends these simple exercises you can do at your desk:

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Desk exercises to improve posture

Sitting for too long is bad for your posture, increasing the risk of back or neck pain or making it worse. “The battle for good posture is won and lost at your desk,” says DeAngelo. “When you have poor posture, you tend to get stiff in your thoracic spine — the area between your lower neck and lower back.”

Stretching exercises help rehydrate tissues, preventing soft tissue stagnation, says DeAngelo. That’s when connective tissue lacks the water and oxygen it needs because of prolonged sitting and bad posture.

Seated stretches

To loosen tight muscles in your thoracic spine, try these stretching exercises from a seated position:

  • Looking straight ahead, feet flat on the floor, raise your hands straight up in the air. Then move them from side to side.
  • Next, put your hands straight out in front of you so that your hands and arms are parallel to the ground. Rotate them from side to side by first pointing your arms to the left as far as they can go and then to the right.
  • With your arms still in front of you, raise them up in the air again. Then reach behind you as if you’re going to do a backflip.
  • Hold each of these positions for two to three seconds when first starting out. As you are able, you can hold each stretch for up to 10 seconds. Depending on your level of fitness, repeat these steps two or three times.

“Everything should feel good. It’s a gentle motion. Don’t push through something if it doesn’t feel right or is painful,” says DeAngelo.

But stretching isn’t enough to improve bad posture, you need to add stability. To achieve that, repeat the steps above holding one- or two-pound weights.

“Once you loosen things up, you have to do a bit of strengthening,” DeAngelo explains. “Anytime you’re trying to increase your mobility, you have to add stability at the same time. Then your body is more apt to keep that posture than going back to where it was before.”

Standing stretches

Think of your body position for these stretches as moving along a clock face. From a standing position, with your feet shoulder-width apart, repeat the stretches above, bending at the waist.

Hip stretches

To increase mobility in your hips, do hip circles:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on your hips. Do gentle circles with your hips clockwise and then counterclockwise.
  • Do five to 10 circles clockwise, then five to 10 circles counterclockwise.

“It’s a motion I call stirring the pot,” DeAngelo says. “You want to feel the ball of your hip kind of rotating in the socket.”

Pelvic stretches

To take hip stretches one step further, include your pelvis. “When you lose motion in your thoracic spine and your hips and pelvis, that’s when you get low back pain,” says DeAngelo.

Repeat the same hand and arm patterns you used in the seated/standing stretches but:

  • Put your right foot on the chair, pointing straight into the chair. Your left foot should be on the ground, at close to a right angle to the chair.
  • Switch legs, putting your left foot on the chair, pointing straight into the chair. Your right foot should be on the ground, at close to a right angle to the chair.

Note:  If you don’t have a stationary chair, lock the wheels on your desk chair so it doesn’t move.

Desk exercises to improve fitness

Once you’ve stretched you can add desk exercises to increase your fitness. For this, DeAngelo recommends a squat matrix. A squat is a simple exercise where you bend your knees, almost like you are trying to sit down in a chair. You can bend deeper, says DeAngelo, but a 45-degree angle is a good place for most people to start.

The squat matrix

The squat matrix provides a total of 27 exercises. It includes three standing positions and nine different foot placements. After each new foot placement, do a squat.

The three basic standing positions are:

  1. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Standing with feet wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Standing with your feet two inches apart.

The nine different foot placements are:

  1. Both your feet pointing straight forward.
  2. Your right foot forward so your right heel is even with your left big toe.
  3. Your left foot forward so your left heel is even with your right big toe.
  4. Both feet bowed out, forming a “V” shape.
  5. Your right foot bowed out, and your left foot forward.
  6. Your left foot bowed out, and your right foot forward.
  7. Both feet bowed in, like a mountain peak.
  8. Your right foot bowed in, and your left foot forward.
  9. Your left foot bowed in, and your right foot forward.

Start by doing one set of 27 squats. Then work your way up to three repetitions of each squat.

Whatever you do, everything should feel comfortable. “If it’s not comfortable, then you should avoid that position,” DeAngelo says. “And let your doctor know, in case there’s something going on that they can address.”

DeAngelo notes that if you decide desk exercises aren’t right for you, it’s important to get up and move every two hours. Sitting for too long can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and early death.

“The idea is to cut your sitting time in half, if possible,” says DeAngelo. “Even just walking to the water cooler can help.”

About Sports Medicine

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