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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VHAYES04 6/7/2020
Thanks!! Report
NELLJONES 5/7/2020
I'm grateful I'm retired! Report
This is why I love working from home- I can camel stretch and the cats don't look at me funny. Report
NIKO27 1/10/2020
Great Article
check out chair exercises Report
I need all these stretches in my life thank you for sharing. Report
thanks Report
Even though I am retired, I will definitely add some of these stretches to my stretching routine. Thanks, Coach Nicole! Report
Great suggestions! Report
Children learn from what they see. We need to set an example of truth and action. – Howard Rainer, Taos Pueblo-Creek ~ 4/25/18 Report
Thank you. I will use some of these at my desk. Report
I've taken to balancing on a wobbly disc instead of sitting at my computer. Report
thanks...will do... Report
Great exercises to try... now if I could just shut the door to my office and people would actually leave me alone... Report
Very important for people who works sitting down. Report
Sitting all day long is absolutely destroying my body. Others just don't seem to get it. They think I should be rested. WRONG! I am constantly hurting. Thanks for the info. Report
My grandfather used to say "it's better to wear out than to rot out" he lived to be 97. Report
Love article lots of good information. Thanks Report
Thanks for this; it's time to move it, move it, move it. Report
Thank you Report
Excellent information Report
I have terrible posture from sitting at a desk all day for 48 years give or take a few years. I have had a couple of jobs that I stood up in the same place for hours. I was a teller for a number of years. I notice when I lay down on the floor that my back doesn't lay flat. I'm sure it's from sitting all day! Thanks for the article as I am going to incorporate many of the exercises. For the last couple of years, I have been getting up and walking about every hour for 5 to 10 minutes as work allows! Report
Great post. Love your chair exercises--they helped me get moving again, no more cane. I've been following your advice and it's helped so much. Thanks. Report
Great information Report
Great! Good exercises. Report
useful post thank you Report
With a little thought, you can turn everything into an opportunity for exercise. Report
Great suggestions, but tell your model sitting on the ball at her desk to hike her skirt down -- a little too work-place friendly! Report
I've just counted up my sedentary hours, acc to fitbit, over the last week and it comes to 59! I do normally stand on a stepping machine at my computer, thanks to SP suggestion. I don't know if Fitbit counts this as sedentary or not... Helpful article. My back problems, previously often acute, have almost disappeared since I started exercising with SP! Thank you, Nicole and all of you! Report
Thank you. My job required some desk time but also a lot of moving, walking, lifting, etc. so that was great.

However, I retired earlier this year and right away noticed the body ache from 'couch surfing' most of the day. So I've turned my home into a 'fitness center' (with Bowflex and Elliptical) complete with an indoor track.

Since I walk from one end of the house to the other dozens of times each day, I strategically position chairs, ottomans, coffee tables, recliners, etc. so that I could walk figure 8's around them and extend my 'workout'. I have several places where I can work on my laptop while standing (for squats, lunges, etc.) All I have to do is crank up the tunes and I'm movin!!!

Now that winter is upon us, I've also added trips to the wood pile for firewood. Good stuff! Report
I do "chair walking" when I need to keep seated but really feel the need to move more - just modified walk in place moves, sometimes without even lifting my feet off the ground, a kind of organized fidgiting. I do usually sit back in my chair for this, though, because I have a very good chair that is intended to be used that way for maximum comfort and ergonomics (a SwingSeat from Aeromotion, they have demos of it at their site and on YouTube, it's made for swivel chair potatoes like me). The right chair is really important if you have to spend hours at the computer all day and night, your back and legs and everything else will thank you - my only regret is that I waited so long to get a good one because of the price (we shouldn't stint on input devices either, such as the right keyboard or trackball/mouse setup). I also have a rolling table between my keyboard platform and my monitor that I've put another keyboard and trackball on so I can stand and type/surf/read. My flat screen monitor easily adjusts upward and downward, just have to pull it up and then push it down to return to a sitting setup. Had to proofread a pile of files on the computer screen for several hours today and spent half the time doing a walk in place sidestep while standing. I alternated between sitting and standing for different parts of the task, and it definitely helped keep me awake! (I can actually fall asleep at the computer in a chair ...) I think I actually was proofreading faster and more accurately as a result, maybe getting more oxygen to the brain. Also I find massage sandals make a huge difference even when sitting (the best I've found have been the old Maseur sandals and now the Old Friend brand, the ones with buckled straps are even comfortable when getting some exercise walking in place while reading on my phone or talking on the phone). I guess the massage sandals make it easy to keep the circulation going in the legs and feet even while sitting.

Having a feline assistant who wants to go in and out and in and out also helps, at least when I can't just leave the cat door open for him and have to get up to do let him in and out and in and out. Likewise it helps to not keep water at your desk but get up and go somewhere for it, even if just a few steps away (but remembering to do that frequently enough). Any excuse to move a bit, basically, or even to just stand up. I know a lot of diet sites say to never eat standing up - but when you're sitting so much, it's actually quite relaxing to stand while eating when that's easy to do, when the food is very simple and as easy to eat sitting or standing. The massage sandals make standing very comfortable also (I only put on the walking shoes to go outside or if I'm going to do a lot of walk in place while watching tv). Standing doesn't mean you're not paying attention to what you're eating. I do it sometimes when eating while watching tv on my computer screen - which also has no effect on how much or what I eat, again contrary to diet mythology. Report
One of the staff in our office has a raised desk and I've been looking at it with a bit of envy. I have chronic back pain and notice that the pain goes away for awhile when I take short yoga breaks throughout the day. I'll try to work in some of these other exercises, too. Thanks for the great suggestions. Report
I am new to Sparks People, but was confused by this "Desk Workout". These are a series of exercises...good exercises...but nothing that you could incorporate at your desk.
I will definately add them to my home workouts. Report
Thank you, I really needed this. I sit all day long except for breaks and lunch. My neck hurts all the time. I will incorporate as many of these as I can. Report
Wow, this was a good read. Just reminded me since I been too busy on the computer and only one to answer phone, so can't leave desk much except to use the bathroom and grab lunch...I am going to do Spark excercises in the bathroom, ha. And, I am going to walk the 13 mins to the train instead of driving. At least I am doing some movement and something for me. Report
Thanks for the information. I have back pain most of the time. Last night I started reading about how to relieve the pain and have continued today. My back feels a little better even after doing some of the tips in the article. It helps to make yourself aware of what we do on a daily basis that can exacerbate the situation. Report
I am a nurse. I work 12 hour shifts at night. I am either running my tail off or siting. I have many leg problems related to tight muscles. I often will get up and stretch. My co workers think I am nuts but I know its what I need to do to prevent injury. Report
I do some of these already, now to try some of these other exercises and see if it helps. Thank you Report
Great article! I will definitely try some of these exercises. I too have a job that requires me to sit most of the time. I try to get up as often as is possible to stretch my legs and get some movement. Thanks for sharing. Report
I will definitely try a few of these tips at work tomorrow! It's kind of depressing when I realize how much of my day I'm sitting or laying down. Report
Great tips here, and thanks to STEWART1961 and your comment, already lowered my chair and raised my screen thanks to your advice and can feel the stretch of me uncurling my shoulders! much better! Report
What a great article! I too would like to "save" this in my favorites to refer back to, but I did add the exercises to my SparkPeople Fitness Tracker. At home, I have my computer on a workbench that's just the right height for me to stand at so I don't use a chair. I have dial-up so I click on something, go away from the computer, then come back to read, track, or post. It helps me stay active rather than just sit at the computer. Report
I wished I could save this article to my favorites here on SparkPeople - but there is no option. I love the information here! Report
This is very helpful. I tend to sit and since the office is so COLD I wrap up in a blanket and not move. I know that I need to get moving and hey I might even warm up a bit! Report
Thanks for all the tips. I spend 45 hours a week at work in front of a computer and a couple more again in the evening (something I'm trying to change!). I was kinda looking for things I can do at work, however, and most of these I can't. Any insights? Report
This is Great! Thanks for the ideas! Report
I noticed I'm a fidgeter at the same time I got married - I never sit still, I'm always moving my feet or my hands or re-arranging myself. I know this b/c my husband CONSTANTLY tells me to be still, like I'm a little kid! It helps to keep my muscles from getting tired. Another move you can do when you're at work are butt muscle flexes. One at a time or both sides together - just hold your glutes firm for as long as you can and repeat - or do pulsing motions. Just make sure no one's watching! Same with ab flexing - push your stomach in (with your muscles, not your hands, silly) like you're sucking in for a photo, and hold it - hold it - and release! Look at you, you're firming and toning and emailing at the same time! Report
This is a great article reminding me that I can fight the battle of the big bottom and sore back at work. I emailed it to myself there so I can cut and paste a reminder of the great stretches and hints. Thank you!!! Report
This is excellent! I wish I could save great blogs to my favorites - hint hint, sparkpeople!
For those with not much space - read more carefully - many of the exercises can be done in little or no space, standing at your desk. So what if you're in a cubicle! Maybe it will start everyone stretching and feeling better, thus being in a better mood! Ha! Report
Look forward to trying these tips and sharing with ladies at work. Report