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

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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