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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Unfortunately this is this the most impractical set of tips I've read since joining SparkPeople. While I agree that I need to stay more active while at work, doing stretches on my office floor is not going to happen. Unfortunately I just don't think the floor at work is clean enough for me to be that intimate with it. I am happy for anyone who CAN do this at work. However, I do wear headphones and "dance" in my chair quite a bit so that I don't clench my jaw and it helps me relax my head, neck and shoulders plus it keeps me awake. I do spend quite a bit of time moving from printer to my desk. I also take breaks to go outside into our courtyard. But mostly my exercise at work is walking around the perimeter of our office space since I can do that without being affected by weather. Also have started coming in early on Mondays to shop for the fruit and veggies that I eat during the week. That requires that I take a different bus and then walk to my office with the packages. May split that up into two or three trips per week to increase the activity time. Report
That camel stretch, when I click at it, it described somehow similar with Cat Stretch, even the picture look like Cat Stretch. Isn't Camel stretch suppose to bend the back towards ceiling?

Anyway, I can do the stretching whenever I felt crancky after sitting too long at the computer, especially chest/shoulder stretch, such a relief to my back and front :) Report
Great tips...I sit all day as well...very helpful Report
Thanks, this information is very helpful , because I sit at a desk all day long Report
Joined yesterday, today is Sept 1 2010 - the first day for health. All day I sit at a computer and I have read most of the comments here and I am going to give it a go.............I need to lose half of my weight size and I will still be this space and we'll see what happens Report
This is nice but I sit in a cubicle and I don't have a space to do these exercises during the day. Do you have any exercises I can do in a regular cubicle during my workday?

Thanks. Report
I work all day long at a desk and just bought a kit like this at for this same thing. I wonder if these are better or the kit I just bought? I'll have to try both and see. Report
Im so glad I read this. Im young too (26) and I have desk job and I really hate it! But its I do get a chance to work out an hour each day im here! Report
I for one have very seldom let my "company" take my lunch time away from me. The break at the middle of the day is what has helped me keep my sanity and my health. During the cool months I take a walk around and get to see places I wouldn't if I was driving, but when Florida gets too hot for walks at the middle fo the day I just take a nap.
I brought in an exercise ball on the advice of my chiropractor a few months ago. Per her instructions I sat 5 minutes each half hour to start and worked my way up to 20 minutes on and 10 off. Now I use it much of the day and my back and hips are so much better! I did get a lot of looks and questions at first but when I explained that it was recommended by my chiropractor people thought it was a good idea. Now several people ask if they can sit o it when they come into my office for business. I bought it at Big 5 on sale for $10.00. It was money well spent! Report
Great ideas! Thanks! Report
Thanks so much for the great tips! I have a desk job and I sit in front of the computer for most of the day and it really does a number. My neck/back/shoulders are constantly sore - and my posture is definitely lacking. I feel like I'm too young to be having these aches and pains! I try to walk and stand but I need to do it more. And I'm always fidgeting and stretching at my desk - tapping my feet, etc. I definitely have to make it a point to be more active and less sedentary after work, too. Report
So glad you posted this! I have been looking for something to combat my sitting all day at work and this is just the thing. And raising the monitor, what a great and simple solution. Report
Great suggestions. I spend approximately 4 hours (round trip) commuting to work. Then, I sit at a desk for 8+ hours (even through lunch). I have only been doing this for 3 years, so maybe I can fix it now. I have had back and neck pain often. SP has helped me see that dramatic changes are needed in my current lifestyle. I have started enjoying my 1 hour lunch FOR ME! Report
You missed the hamstring stretch, which imo is the most important, with the glute and psoas stretches being tied for a close second. The rounded back (spinal flexion) symptom you mentioned goes hand in hand with posterior pelvic tilt. Very few people manage to keep an arched lower back while sitting (it even looks kinda weird) but this posterior pelvic tilt results in semi contracted glutes and hamstrings, which in turn gets these muscles to tighten, which in turn worsens your posterior pelvic tilt while sitting, and thus a vicious cycle is created. Even if your back is very strong (as is the case with someone like me who deadlifts 500lbs) you will have a very difficult time keeping a correct posture while sitting if your glutes and hamstrings are tight, because this will make it uncomfortable to have proper arch on your lower back while sitting. As far as ive seen, if you work on the mobility/flexibility of your posterior chain, hip flexors, and shoulder girdle, posture problems sorta take care of themselves as everything else falls naturally into place. Thanks for the great advice though, i'll definitely try to stand up (if only for 20-30 secs) every 30mins while at work! Report
This blog hit so close to home...or should I say work :-) I will definitely incorporate these exercise into my routine. Report
I sit most of the day but mostly because I use a wheelchair. After reading your blog I tried a few upper body and neck stretches which felt good, and I cleared a path around an area where I could safely walk about 30 steps at a time. I am going to walk indoors at least once every hour. You have presented a few good exercise ideas that won't cause more pain, so I thank you for that.. Report
As a truck driver I do a lot of sitting. Currently after about 2 hours of driving I stop for a short break, get a cup of coffee and use my stretch bands, I get to my pick up point I use the stretch bands and do some alternate leg lifts while sitting on a medal table slightly leaning back. This works better than laying on the floor ,it takes less presure of the back. Report
I have been using an exercise ball as an office chair for the last year. It is great! Sure you get some funny looks, but after people think about it they see it is a pretty good idea. My chiropractor agrees. And when you have a few minutes you can throw in some crunches, etc. :) Report
I love these exercises, so simple, easy and convenient Report
I do have a 12 hour sitting job and I am exhausted each day with bad posture and way too much weight for my short self. Each day I get up a couple times from my desk and take a stroll around our office building. At lunch I have begun walking a 2 mile lap around our lake, but it is the evenings that I am just drained, I come home make dinner, try to get in a workout which I have been unsuccessful at over the past 6 or 7 weeks and then drop into bed and am asleep before my head hits the pillow. Although I am up at 4:30 in the morning to get to work by 6:00 there is just not enough time to workout in the morning and I am stuck without getting enough sleep right now. Report
Stewart 1961- thanks for the tip about the monitor. My workstation was purchased for the previous person in my job. She is considerably shorter than I am, consequently, my workstation feels like a primer school desk. Moving the monitor immediately changed my posture! Report
I’ve had a series of office jobs over the years. With some, you have great HR support, well designed office space, and plenty of opportunity to get up to talk to people, go to the cafeteria, etc. Others, less so. In my current position, I’m pretty much nailed to my desk during the day, the bathroom and kitchen are literally a couple of steps away, and my colleagues very close to hand. There is really nowhere to go for a five minute break, so going for a “quick walk” to get some fresh air means really committing yourself to working later (which means being less likely to do some real exercise when I get home.) I’ve decided the only real solution is to find a new job, but that also means spending more time in front of the computer when I go home, which I really can’t face at the moment! Maybe when the days are shorter again... Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
Does anybody know of a balance ball that would work as an office chair without spending $100??? Report
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. Report
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.) Report
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.
My friend actually uses one of those exercise balls as her chair when she's at her desk Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. :) Report
yeah...I want to see everyone in the office doing Superman on his desk... Report
Your tips are great and I can't wait to start putting them to use, I think that standing desk is a great idea! Report
I'd like to know more about the standing work station that you mentioned in your blog. Report
I have tried some of these exercises and they are great. Report
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! Report
Thanks, Nicole. My husband and I love your cardio videos. I'm following you on Twitter now. Report
Thank you for the tips - They are very helpful!!! Report
I choose to mind my own business. I figure they are old enough and knowledgable enough to make their own decision. Report
Excellent ... I am sure these will help me. Report
Excellent...I will definitely incorporate some of these techniques at the office. Report
Great ideas! Report
Thanks for the tips Report
Thanks for the tips. I'll be trying them out in the coming weeks! Report
I do a yoga move called "nauli" to tighten the abdominal muscles Report