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Physical 

9 Easy Exercises You Can Do At Your Desk

November 10, 2020 6 min read

Woman doing exercises while working from home

For many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted our working environments—along with the rest of our lives—into the boundaries of home. And while there are perks to remote employment, it also comes with its drawbacks. 

Without an office to go into, work-life balance can quickly become blurred. This often leads to employees putting in more hours and pushing back time for themselves. In fact, a recent study of 3.1 million employees by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that the average workday increased by 8.2%—48.5 minutes to be exact—in the weeks following lockdown orders (1). In addition to the mental health risks this poses, an unfortunate physical side effect of extended workdays is the increased time spent sitting.

Whether you’re working longer hours or simply spending more time on the couch binging Netflix, all that sitting can negatively affect your health. Studies show that spending eight hours a day in a chair affects your body in both the short- and long-term. According to the WHO, more than 3 million deaths a year stem from insufficient physical activity (2). Along with increased risks of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle is associated with mental health disorders like depression.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to combat the effects of all that sitting. One of the best ways to counterbalance a sedentary lifestyle is to exercise throughout the day. Even small bursts of activity can be enough to stretch your muscles and get the blood flowing. Keep reading to learn more about the harmful effects of sitting and discover some of the best exercises you can do at your desk. 

The dangers of sitting

Even before the pandemic, Americans spent too much time sitting and not enough time engaged in physical activity. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 25% of people sit for more than eight hours a day, with 44% performing no moderate to vigorous exercise (3). Just 3% of respondents reported sitting for less than four hours a day and participating in regular physical activity. Read on to learn more about the dangers associated with spending too many hours chained to your desk.

Heart disease

A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of heart disease. Along with raising your risk for obesity, a leading cause of heart attacks, sitting contributes to poor circulation. According to a recent study, people who sit for ten or more hours each day are 18% more likely to develop heart disease than those who sit for five hours or fewer (4).

Diabetes

If you’re spending most of your day in a chair, you might be more likely to develop type 2 diabetes in the future. Research shows that type 2 diabetes is on the rise worldwide as sedentary lifestyles become the norm (5). This trend isn’t limited to adults either; young people and children are also developing this disease in greater numbers. 

Pain and discomfort

Even if your sedentary lifestyle doesn’t result in a diagnosable condition, you may find yourself experiencing more pain and discomfort. Research reveals that people who spend long hours sitting for work or leisure suffer a range of physical effects, including hamstring pain, tight hip flexors, knee stiffness and lower back discomfort (6). Over time, these issues can affect your gait and balance, making you more prone to falls.

Psychological distress

The effects of a sedentary lifestyle aren’t merely physical. According to a study out of Australia, men who spent more than six hours of their workday sitting were 90% more likely to experience psychological distress than those whose work required them to sit for three hours or fewer (7). Observed symptoms included nervousness, restlessness, exhaustion and even hopelessness. 

Woman sitting on the floor doing work

Change the way you work

Clearly, sitting for too long can result in a host of consequences. The good news is that increasing your daily activity can reverse the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and boost overall wellness. While you might not be able to reduce the number of hours you spend working, you can take steps to counteract all that sitting. 

One of the best ways to protect your health and posture is to make sure you’re sitting properly while you work. Many of us slump or slouch at our desks, resulting in a host of negative symptoms and potential alignment issues. These symptoms include headaches, sciatica, and even disc compression and arthritis. Counteract these issues by choosing an ergonomic chair that allows you to work with your feet flat on the floor and your knees and hips at a 90-degree angle. Additionally, make sure to position your monitor at eye level. 

Taking breaks is also crucial to maintaining spinal alignment and protecting your health. For best results, strive to get up from your desk once every 30 minutes (8). You can also opt to stand for portions of the day, such as when you’re brainstorming ideas or talking on the phone. Depending on your home-office setup, you could even install a treadmill in your work area and walk while taking calls or virtual meetings. 

Stretches you can do at your desk

If your job requires you to sit at a desk for long periods, incorporating stretching into your daily routine is key. Here are some of the most effective stretches that you can perform without getting out of your chair. 

Neck stretch

Perform this exercise by sitting up straight in your chair. Then tilt your head to drop your right ear down toward your right shoulder. Hold the stretch for a few seconds and then switch to the other side. Repeat five times.

Arm stretch

Thread your fingers together and extend them up toward the ceiling. Your palms should face the ceiling for the entirety of the stretch. 

Shrugs

Stretch out your shoulders and release tension by performing this shrugging stretch. All you have to do is raise both shoulders up to your ears. Hold the stretch for a few seconds, release and then repeat five times. 

Chest stretch

If you spend hours hunched over a computer screen, this chest stretch can provide significant relief. Start by holding your hands behind your back. Then press your palms together, sit up straight and hold the pose for 10 seconds. Repeat five times. 

Woman doing stretches at home on the floor

Exercises you can do at your desk

Take your stretching to the next level and incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine. The following desk exercises can help combat the negative effects of sitting for hours a day.

Squats

You barely have to get up from your chair to perform this desk exercise. After standing up, simply lower yourself back to a seated position, taking care to push out your buttocks as you squat. Repeat this exercise 10 times. 

Calf lifts

You’ll need to stand behind your chair to perform this exercise. Holding onto the back of the chair, lift your heels off the ground and push up onto your toes. Lower back to the ground slowly. Repeat for three sets of 10 lifts. 

Arm pulses

If you have a habit of slouching, then stretching out your shoulders is key. Start this exercise by standing at your desk with your arms straight by your sides, palms facing backward. Then pulse your arms back for 20 seconds. The goal is to keep your arms as straight as possible.

Wall push-ups

You’ll need a wall to perform this exercise. Stand facing the wall and lean forward, so your hands are flat and positioned just wider than your shoulders. Then, slowly lower yourself down against the wall, keeping your core tight. Push back out until your elbows are straight but not locked in position. Repeat 20 times. 

Leg lifts

One of the best things about leg lifts is that no one has to know you’re doing them. To perform this exercise, sit with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor. Then lift your legs one by one while squeezing your core. You can modify this exercise by lifting both feet at the same time. Repeat 20 times. 

In summary

It’s clear that Americans aren’t spending enough time engaged in physical activity. Whether you’re working at a computer, reading, watching television or scrolling your favorite social media site, the odds are you’re sedentary for a large portion of the day. 

It’s vital to keep in mind that sitting for hours can negatively impact your health. Not only has a sedentary lifestyle been linked with an increased risk of obesity and chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, but it can also lead to mental health issues. 

The good news is that you can take steps to counteract all that sitting and improve your long-term health. Along with taking regular breaks throughout the day to move around, employees can perform simple stretches and exercises without leaving the (home) office. In fact, walking for just two minutes an hour may help reverse the negative effects of regular sitting (9). So, get up, walk around and reap the health benefits.

April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice