This article originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report on July 12, 2021.
How to Squeeze in Exercise During Work
There are some tried and true methods for adding physical activity to your workday. These include active commuting – like walking or cycling to work – exercising before or after work or on your lunch break, and being active or even hitting the gym in the evenings after dinner.
But that still leaves eight to 10 hours a day when many of us are at our desks, whether it's at home or in an office. All of that sitting time can wreak havoc on our bodies, from low-back pain and tight hip flexors to neck stiffness and headaches, not to mention the fact that being sedentary – that is, sitting too much – increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
The good news is that it's easy to incorporate physical activity into your workday. Thankfully, you don't have to do burpees in your cubicle or pull-ups from your office door frame to see the benefits. Simply standing, moving around a bit and doing some stretches through the day can be enough to counter the effects of too much sitting.
Move as Much as You Can
Before we explore specific exercises, here are some simple ideas for adding movement to your workday.
Easy Exercises to Do at Your Desk
Here's a rundown of some exercises you can do at your desk or in your cubicle or office throughout your day:
Tightness in the muscles surrounding the hip joint can cause pain and discomfort in the hips and lower spine. To counter these effects, perform a kneeling hip-flexor stretch.
Standing Figure-4 Stretch
On the other side of the hips, the glutes will sometimes lose strength due to prolonged sitting, which can cause back pain.
To perform this stretch:
- Stand and place your hands on a desk or chair for balance.
- Place the outside of your right ankle above the kneecap of your left knee (this forms a "4" position with your legs).
- Keeping the chest upright and the hips facing forward, bend the left knee (as if doing a one-legged squat) and lean back slightly.
- To increase the stretch in the right glute muscles, place a hand on the inside of the right knee and push gently toward the floor.
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
- Repeat on the other side.
Sitting at a computer and looking at a computer screen can cause neck and shoulder tightness and, eventually, headaches. Take a few minutes to occasionally perform lateral neck flexion and neck flexion and extension exercises throughout your day.
Rotating, flexing and extending the wrists will relieve tension that builds up while working on a keyboard all day. The idea is simply to move the wrists through their full range of motion in all directions.
Many people assume a hunched position when sitting at their desk, which can cause tightness in the chest and throughout the upper body, eventually leading to poor posture and pain.
Here's how to perform this stretch:
- Standing upright, clasp your fingers behind your head without straining the neck.
- Keeping both feet on the floor, turn your head to look at the left elbow.
- Maintaining this position, lean your torso to the right without bending forward or extending backward.
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Sitting for long periods can cause the upper body to round forward, from your lower back up through the shoulders. In the long term, this can cause the muscles that help your spine to extend, your shoulder blades to depress and retract, and your shoulders to externally rotate lose strength and functionality. This can result in chronic pain and a loss of function.
- Standing upright, flex forward at the waist without bending the spine. Your hips should shift backward and the arms should hang naturally in front of the body.
- After three deep breaths, return to an upright position while simultaneously moving the arms away from the body laterally, approaching a position just below parallel to the floor.
- While raising the arms, rotate the thumbs backward, facing the palms of your hands toward the sky.
- As your arms raise in this position, picture the thumbs moving toward one another behind your back.
- Once upright, continue to extend the spine, without pain, to a position where your chest is facing upright, your arms are slightly below parallel to the floor, your palms are facing upward and your thumbs are moving toward one another.
- Hold this position for three breaths and repeat five to 10 times.
Ankle Stretches and Mobility Exercises
Like the wrist stretches described above, these will stretch and strengthen your ankles. The idea here is to rotate the ankles through their full range of motion in all directions. Point your toes and pull them up toward your shins. Finally, stand up and perform calf raises to build strength.
Get creative. You probably can't spend 30 or 40 minutes doing a full-body circuit of body-weight exercises during your workday, but you can perform a set or two of an exercise as a quick break while never leaving your cubicle or office. You can do squats, lunges, push-ups, curl-ups, planks, bird dogs, cat-cows – the list goes on and on. Check out this collection of "no equipment exercises" for ideas.
One last piece of good news: Research has shown that staying active during your workday may improve your mental performance, increase your motivation and help you manage stress. And, exercise increases productivity, as the regular breaks will clear your mind and increase your focus on tasks.
So, if your boss asks why you're pacing while on the phone or standing up to stretch once an hour, you can tell them that it will make you a better employee. They can't argue with that!