Desk Job Got You Down? Try a Desk-Defying Workout


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  115 comments   :  140,449 Views

As a young college student studying health and fitness, I never expected that I'd have a desk job. Certainly I'd be on my feet, active, exercising, training people all day long, right? Turns out, my job is the exact opposite. Working for SparkPeople allows me to share my passion for health and fitness with so many people, helping them get fit and reach their goals. I love what I do. But I don't love sitting on my rear for more than 40 hours per week while I do it. Being handed a "desk sentence" at such a young age is not what I expected.

Although I exercise most days of the week and try to maintain as active of a lifestyle as possible, I'm suffering from too much sitting. Lately, my back aches most of the time, sometimes so badly that I can't sit, stand or lie down comfortably for days. My shoulders round forward, which is doing a number on my posture. My head and neck are in a permanent "forward" position, and my hips are tight. Throughout the day, I notice my shoulders creeping up toward my ears with tension and have to remind myself to relax them down. Ten, 30, 60, even 90 minutes of exercise a day doesn't seem to matter much when I'm spending all the rest of my time on my butt (or on my back, sleeping).

I'm know I'm not alone. Women's Health magazine recently reported on a poll of 6,300 people conducted by the Institute for Medicine and Public Health. They discovered that on average, we spend 56 hours a week sitting behind a computer, at the wheel or in front of the TV. A sedentary lifestyle seems to be the most common side effect we suffer from life in a modern world. We drive (or ride public transit) to work, sit all day at our white collar jobs, make the long commute home (sitting again), and then feel so achy, tired or exhausted from our long days of (mentally) hard work that we plop down on the couch and stare at the TV or computer for a few more hours before we lie down and go to bed. We know a sedentary lifestyle is bad for us. It definitely contributes to weight issues, heart disease, poor blood sugar control, and a host of other ailments.

For awhile, I felt hopeless. Destined for discomfort. Banished to a life of back pain. But lately, I've been tackling my issues head on by getting up from my desk throughout the day, targeting the muscles made weak or tight by sitting while I work out, and changing how I use my body while I use the computer. I'm happy to report that it's been paying off. And since many of you struggle with sedentary jobs that create all sorts of muscular imbalances, which lead to pain and discomfort, I'm sharing a new workout plan with you.

The Desk Defying Workout

This workout involves three components: stretching, strengthening, and standing. Incorporate what you can during your workday, but these are suggestions for exercises to include in your fitness program--not necessarily at your desk. (Here's a shortened version that's printable and can be added to your SparkPeople Fitness Tracker with one click.

When we spend a lot of time at a desk, using a computer, driving a car, or even preparing food in the kitchen, we tend to lean forward, round our backs (spinal flexion), hunch our shoulders, and push our heads forward. (Don't believe me? Take note at how often your head actually touches your head rest while you drive.) Do that for hours each day for years and it affects your posture, which creates imbalances of tight and weak muscles throughout your body. Sitting, especially, does a number on the spine and tightens the hip flexors (which remain in a shortened position), chest and shoulders, which pull everything out of alignment. To counteract these effects, the following chest, hip, spine and shoulder stretches should be part of your routine EVERY DAY. These are going to help move your body in the opposite direction. Do them regularly throughout the day while you sit at your desk. Do them after each workout. Do them as often as you can. Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds at a time. Many of these you can do at your desk throughout the day.

Chest stretch on ball: Lying on a ball (or a foam roller or aerobics step or similar) allows you to stretch through a greater range of motion.
Back bend (wheel) on ball: I do this move 2-3 times per day after I've been at my desk for awhile, but it might not be office appropriate for a lot of people; try it at the gym or at home.
Upward dog: This stretch extends the spine to help counter all the forward flexion from reaching, leaning or slouching at your desk all day. This cobra pose also works much the same way.
Camel stretch: Another spine-extending exercise that's great if you can't do the back bend stretch above.
Chest/shoulder stretch: Try this throughout the day to help pull your shoulders back and stretch a tight chest.
Neck stretch (extension): Focus on the neck extension (looking toward the ceiling) and don't do the flexion (chin to chest) so much, since most of us sit with our necks already forward (flexed).
Quad stretch: Helps stretch the front of the thigh, but if you pull your knee/thigh slightly back behind the body, you'll also stretch the hips, which become tight after prolonged sitting.
Kneeling hip flexor stretch: Another great one for hip flexors that are tight from being in a shortened (seated) position all day long.

To counter all that sitting and the poor posture that results, we need to strengthen muscles on the back of the body, as well as the core. Focus on these exercises during twice-weekly strength training sessions, aiming for 2 sets of 8-15 reps. Be sure to check out SparkPeople's Better-Posture exercises for more ideas.

Elbow plank: Strengthens the entire core. Hold plank in good form until your body begins to shake, then rest. Repeat 1-2 times.
Side plank: Another great move for core strengthening, but it should only be held in good form for as long as you can before your core/body begins to shake.
Rows: Any type of dumbbell, band or machine rows will help strengthen the mid and upper back as well as the back of the shoulders (posterior deltoids). These muscles can weaken over time when your posture is forward and your arms are in front of you while typing, using the computer, or driving.
Superman: Great lower back strengthener that also includes hip and spinal extension (remember, that's the opposite movement than we use while sitting all day, so we want more of it).
Neck strengthener: While driving, practice pulling your chin in and pushing your head into the headrest behind you for a few seconds at a time, then releasing. If you have a high-back chair that you sit in at work, you can do this during your workday, too. This can help strengthen the back of the neck and the upper trapezius muscles to correct forward-head posture (common if you do a lot of desk work).

It may seem obvious, but the more you can stand during your workday and outside of work, the better off you'll be. I was so tired of sitting all day at work and feeling uncomfortable that I made my own standing workstation for free. Instead of buying a fancy standing desk for several hundred dollars (yep, I looked into it), I set up my computer on a bar-height table we already had at the office. Perhaps you even have one at home! This is a much more economical solution that even your employer might be able to get behind. Here are some additional standing-related tips for your day.
  • Get up from your desk as often as you can. Walk to the restroom that's further away. Walk to the water cooler. Stop by your co-worker's desk to ask that question instead of emailing it. Stand up even if just to stretch for a minute every 30-60 minutes throughout the day.
  • When work is over, get on your feet. After sitting all day, the last thing I want to do is sit more at home, so I try to be physically active in addition to working out. The TV is rarely turned on in my house (we go days at a time without even plugging it in), and I'm able to get a lot done around the house each night: walking the dog, exercising, cooking dinner, a little yard work, cleaning the house, packing lunch for the next day, watering the garden and more. Sitting is the enemy when you have chronic back pain and poor posture. Get up and get moving!
  • Take a short walking break during the day, if you can. A few laps around the office or to your lunch destination can do wonders.
  • Plan some exercise before and after work. I try to squeeze in some activity before I go to work each day and again when I'm done. This way, I'm moving during the times I'm not confined to my desk.
  • Limit screen time. I mentioned TV earlier, but it warrants another mention. The more TV you watch, the more likely you are to be overweight and suffer other health problems that stem from a sedentary lifestyle. But TV isn't the only screen we spend time in front of. Monitor and limit your computer time at home, too. If you must use the computer, place it on a higher surface and stand up. If you must watch TV, try to get moving and avoid sitting down.
  • Fidget. Move throughout the day, changing your body position and posture so you're not always stuck in the same position for several hours.
There you have it: A simple plan of exercises, stretches and daily activity that can help you counteract the side effects of your desk job, helping decrease back pain, improve posture, and reduce your risk of health problems associated with prolonged sitting. Incorporate as many of these tips into your day as possible and, along with your consistent exercise program, you should notice better posture, less pain, and a stronger back.

Over the last few weeks, I've been standing more, stretching my chest and hips, and working to strengthen those often-neglected muscles along the back of the body. And I've noticed a lot of improvements in my back pain. It comes on less often and goes away sooner. I can also stand longer and longer at my new upright workstation before taking a break in a chair, and I've noticed my spine feeling more mobile and flexible—something I haven't felt in years, despite a steady practice of Pilates. Finally, I'm doing right by my body even though I have a sedentary job.

Our bodies were designed for motion, not sitting, so let this serve as a reminder to get up from your chair and get active as often as possible throughout the day.

Do you have a sedentary job, or sit most of the day? Have you suffered pain, fatigue or poor posture as a result?

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  • 65
    For years I've toyed with the idea of getting rid of my office chair and getting an exercise ball. Now I think I'm actually going to do it. I just lowered my chair and already notice that I'm sitting up and my shoulders aren't slumped forwards. My stomach is also tucked in and feel so confortable. Wow what a difference one simple move makes. - 8/31/2010   9:24:52 AM
    Great suggestions. Besides trying to get my walk/weight exercise in during working hours, I'll try to stand more often while sending e-mail or on phone. Anyone know where one can get an inexpensive balance ball?? Thanks. - 8/31/2010   9:06:08 AM
    I love to sew. I sit on my big ball and sew...helps the posture and having the ball close by, I can take a break and do a few exercises. - 8/31/2010   8:59:03 AM
    Does anybody know of a balance ball that would work as an office chair without spending $100??? - 8/31/2010   8:54:14 AM
  • 61
    I like the idea of keeping the laptop on a counter. I did that for a while but ended up having to move it because I needed the counter space. Will have to find another spot. - 8/31/2010   8:52:10 AM
    My chiropractor says the most important thing you can do for your posture when you have a desk job is to raise your monitor. The bottom of your computer monitor should be even with your top lip. When your monitor is this high, you will automatically sit with better posture. (I stack mine on a couple of old briefcases.) - 8/31/2010   8:45:10 AM
  • 59
    This is exactly what I have been dealing with for the past year and more. Thank you for the exercises. I have a couple more that you might enjoy:
    1. Lie lengthwise on a 36" foam roller. Hold your arms bent where you feel the maximum stretch.
    2. Roll up a wash cloth and lie down so your forehead is on the washcloth. Bend your arms and lift your forehead and arms just slightly off the floor. Hold for 6 seconds and repeat, gradually increasing duration of the hold over time.
    3. Put two tennis balls in a sock. Put it under your shoulders and neck. Move around a little to feel the tennis balls massaging your back. Roll on the balls to move them to a different spot.
    I live on these and the neck strengthener you described. I'll try the others you suggested too.
    - 8/31/2010   8:34:35 AM
    My friend actually uses one of those exercise balls as her chair when she's at her desk - 8/31/2010   8:27:10 AM
  • 57
    SNARDEESNIFF- I had the same problem until I realized that, for some reason I was arching my back. Try to sit with your lower back pushed back and your pelvis pushed forward. This will keep your spine straight. It helped me immensely. - 8/31/2010   8:26:25 AM
    All of these exercises are in the various videos but it would be nice to have a workout video to follow with all of them. I've found the videos to be very helpful. - 8/31/2010   8:11:20 AM
    Wow, where do you work that you can do yoga moves like side planks and upward dog? I do like the reminder that I can do simple stretches when I'm taking customer calls. Since joing sparks and drinking 8 plus glasses of water daily at work alone, I'm getting up every 45 minutes to an hour for bathroom breaks and more water. Just these simple acts have helped my chronic back aches. Thanks. - 8/31/2010   7:33:28 AM
  • 54
    I have tried sitting on the balance ball, but it KILLS my lower back! I guess I need to use it for shorter lengths of time to start out. - 8/31/2010   7:28:53 AM
  • 53
    Another important point is to make sure your computer screen is at eye level so you're not slouching to look at it. This has done wonders for my upper back pain and all you need is a box or a few books to put underneath the screen. :) - 8/31/2010   6:49:13 AM
    yeah...I want to see everyone in the office doing Superman on his desk... - 8/31/2010   1:59:44 AM
    Your tips are great and I can't wait to start putting them to use, I think that standing desk is a great idea! - 8/30/2010   10:23:25 AM
  • 50
    I'd like to know more about the standing work station that you mentioned in your blog. - 8/30/2010   9:31:30 AM
  • SDJ088822
    I have tried some of these exercises and they are great. - 8/29/2010   8:12:39 PM
  • 48
    This is timely! I knew sitting all day was not especially ideal in terms of health (my aching back!) but this really puts it all in perspective. Thank you for taking the time to blog about it. I posted this to my facebook page in hopes others will also benefit. I'm definitely trying this! - 8/28/2010   8:23:17 AM
  • 47
    Thanks, Nicole. My husband and I love your cardio videos. I'm following you on Twitter now. - 8/26/2010   9:53:23 PM
  • 25LADY
    Thank you for the tips - They are very helpful!!! - 8/26/2010   4:46:11 PM
  • 45
    I choose to mind my own business. I figure they are old enough and knowledgable enough to make their own decision. - 8/26/2010   1:43:43 PM
  • 44
    Excellent ... I am sure these will help me. - 8/26/2010   11:14:48 AM
  • 43
    Excellent...I will definitely incorporate some of these techniques at the office. - 8/26/2010   8:53:52 AM
  • 42
    Great ideas! - 8/26/2010   8:17:46 AM
  • 41
    Thanks for the tips - 8/26/2010   6:20:38 AM
  • 40
    Thanks for the tips. I'll be trying them out in the coming weeks! - 8/26/2010   3:49:47 AM
  • JOSIANE2934
    I do a yoga move called "nauli" to tighten the abdominal muscles - 8/26/2010   2:33:48 AM
  • 38
    I always move my legs as I need to keep my circulation going. I "tap" my feet a lot. - 8/26/2010   1:06:10 AM
  • 37
    Thank you for the ideas! I wish I had something to flash on my computer reminding to get up and move around. - 8/25/2010   9:57:58 PM
    I'm a legal secretary who puts in long hours sitting at a desk. I'm going to try these things to see if they help me feel better at work. I used to walk on my lunch break, and am going to try and make that a priority again. Thanks for the great tips! - 8/25/2010   8:49:23 PM
  • 35
    I'm constantly fidgeting and stretching in my chair at work and I think it helps. Of course having a regular exercise routine outside of work is 100% necessary. I used to get little aches and pains all the time until I started doing cardio and strength training and now it doesn't bother me to sit for long periods - but I make it a point to stand up or walk a bit once an hour or so.

    Sitting bolt upright, however, has been shown to cause back problems.

    Researchers have found that a "135-degree back-thigh sitting posture" was the best posture to avoid back problems—that is, leaning back in the chair 45 degrees. Researchers found that the 90-degree position contributed most to strain on the spine, neck included, while the 135-degree position was the most relaxed.

    Also, try not to cross your legs. It can cause spider veins from cutting off your circulation. - 8/25/2010   4:55:10 PM
  • 34
    I'm constantly fidgeting and stretching in my chair at work and I think it helps. Of course having a regular exercise routine outside of work is 100% necessary. I used to get little aches and pains all the time until I started doing cardio and strength training and now it doesn't bother me to sit for long periods - but I make it a point to stand up or walk a bit once an hour or so.

    Sitting bolt upright, however, has been shown to cause back problems.

    Researchers have found that a "135-degree back-thigh sitting posture" was the best posture to avoid back problems—that is, leaning back in the chair 45 degrees. Researchers found that the 90-degree position contributed most to strain on the spine, neck included, while the 135-degree position was the most relaxed.

    Also, try not to cross your legs. It can cause spider veins from cutting off your circulation. - 8/25/2010   4:55:10 PM
  • JEN_1680
    I have a heck of a time with my posture while sitting at my desk. My chiropractor and physical therapist lecture me all the time about it. I'm pretty good about remembering it when my back hurts, but the problem is as my back starts to feel better I start to forget about the posture. So I now have a sticky note stuck to my moniter that says "Sit up Straight! No Slouching!" actually works pretty well. - 8/25/2010   3:35:43 PM
    I went from a job where I was NEVER sitting to a job where the majority of the day I am sitting, so I will definitely be trying these!! - 8/25/2010   12:49:11 PM
  • 31
    good ideas.... - 8/25/2010   11:12:24 AM
  • 30
    Please note that this is not a workout to do at your desk, although you can do some of the stretches there. It states to do these moves during your workouts. Thanks for the feedback! - 8/25/2010   11:06:34 AM
  • 29
    You have the perfect work invironment, you work for spark, so you can make the adjustments you want to make. If I brought a balance ball into work, there would be no where for me to use that. There are some good suggestions, and then some not so good, More then likely many people work in a cubical like I do rationed space. Yes there are bathrooms to go do some exercise in butta I would rather not. I have simple 1.5 lbs wrist weights at work and I use them on and off. I agree about posture, I have been constantly putting my hips out of alingment because of the way I sit in my chair, and I am learning to sit properly. These are great suggestions, thanks for this blog. One more comment: when we sit our bones sit - we can't keep them healthy sitting, we do need to get up and move around, so be creative and find ways to get up out of your chairs, designate the printer on the other side of the room, get up to talk to a co worker rather then email or phone. You will find reasons to get up. Take advantage of the stairway and use it for exercise - avoid the elevators as well if you can. Just some more suggestions, and stretch stretch stretch, before, during and after - at least that is what my physio therapist tells me ! - 8/25/2010   10:59:37 AM
  • 28
    So great to hear that we actually do need this kind of stretching. Our daily lives are not normal and our bodies aren't supposed to perform perfectly without some extra support! - 8/25/2010   10:50:54 AM
  • 27
    Thank you for these great tips. Some of them are impossible for me to do because my boss already thinks I'm crazy and I'm not trying to give her any confirmations :-). But the others I will do. - 8/25/2010   10:45:26 AM
  • 26
    unfortunately, I could never do this at work :( - 8/25/2010   10:29:20 AM
  • 25
    I also have that wonderful office job. My co-workers would look at me like I was crazy if I brought my exercise ball to work, I think I'm too short for that anyway :-)

    I do get up several times a day and take a walk to our other office and I also do some exercises in the restroom each time I visit. Arm exercises, waist twists, squats, etc. By the time my day is finished I may have ended up doing 5 or 6 sets. Every little bit helps especially when I work late and I don't have time for workout's at home. - 8/25/2010   10:09:01 AM
    This is brilliant! Is it possible to get a printed version (including the text from the links)? I would love to pin this up in my cubicle as a reminder. - 8/25/2010   9:48:07 AM
  • 23
    I love my job but hate how it leaves me at a desk and curling my neck to be on the phone. I am getting better about using speaker phone a lot when I can, and getting up a lot during the day. Great tips and stretches. This is definitely marked as a favorite!! :) - 8/25/2010   9:44:33 AM
  • 22
    Great blog! I can't wait to try some of these stretches. I'm pretty good at getting up frequently throughout my work day (ie I always make multiple trips to the photocopier or printer instead of doing it all at once) but I do suffer some back pain and I notice it the most on Thursdays and Fridays...hmmm I never really thought it was probably from sitting all week! - 8/25/2010   9:34:05 AM
    Thanks for the great tips! - 8/25/2010   9:33:29 AM
  • 20
    Thank you for sharing. I have a very small work cubicle. I need activities I can do just standing up in front of my computer desk at work. I will incorporate many of the ones you recommend that don't require special equipment and space for a mat. - 8/25/2010   9:15:15 AM
  • 19
    Great Ideas, I will be trying them out this week. - 8/25/2010   9:15:14 AM
  • 18
    Thanks so much for this very constructive blog post! I am very active outside of work, but still have been feeling discouraged trying to combat the cumulative physical effects of 20+ years at a desk job (with no end in sight, since winning the lottery probably isn't in my future ;-). Your suggested combination of strength and stretching seems to be right on the money. Thanks for "recharging" my optimism about this and for the specific suggestions - I'm definitely going to work on putting this plan in place. - 8/25/2010   9:04:20 AM
  • 17
    Some great tips that i will certainly use - but using an exercise ball or doing things on a floor mat at work? Not in my office, unless I want to lose that 40 hour a week sedentary job! - 8/25/2010   8:46:08 AM
  • 16
    I pace when I'm on a phone call. I also walk from one end of the building to the other when I feel myself "zoning out". It's eight minutes roundtrip, and I always feel renewed energy by the time I get back to my desk. I wonder if I can convince my boss to order one of those exercise balls for a seat. I hear that works wonders for the abs eight hours a day! - 8/25/2010   8:39:34 AM

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