Did you know that there’s a huge variety of different exercises you can do at your desk to help beat the negative effects of sedentary work?
It’s no surprise that sitting at a desk for several hours of the day, multiple days a week comes at a price—typically in the form of aches, pains, tension, stiffness, excess weight, and weaker bones.
We’re not supposed to spend the majority of our days sitting at our desks or sitting in our cars. Our bodies were designed to walk long distances, squat close to the ground, bend over, reach for things, pick things up, lift heavy, and do all sorts of basic movements that were once key to our survival.
The human body simply hasn’t evolved fast enough to match the typical Westerner’s modern lifestyle, and that’s a big problem for the many workers out there who depend on a desk, a chair, and a computer to make their living.
Fact: Setting Aside Time for a Hard Workout Every Day Won’t Undo the Effects of Prolonged Sitting
If you’re a desk worker who makes a hard daily effort to hit the gym, go for a run, get on your yoga mat, or do some other type of workout, then I applaud you. I know it’s not easy to create that sort of habit—especially if you work 40+ hours a week, have a long commute, and are raising a family.
Unfortunately, a daily vigorous workout isn’t enough to undo the effects of sitting all day.
A Finnish study published in 2012 found that by fitting study participants with clothing technology to track their daily movement, their muscles were inactive for about 70 percent of the day—regardless of whether they had worked out that day or not.
Scientists already know that when the muscles remain inactive for long periods of time, certain physiological functions, such as fat metabolism, can start working against a person’s overall health.
In 2016, a research report from the American Heart Association also concluded that sitting for prolonged periods of time was a problem of its own, independent of whether or not people got the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week.
So regardless of whether you hit that 150-minute target or not, if you sit the the majority of the rest of the day, your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is higher.
The Most Important Thing You Can Do
As an office or desk worker, the most important thing you can do to stave off the negative effects of prolonged sitting is take frequent breaks, get up from your chair, and walk around.
In a 2017 study on patterns of sedentary behaviour that tracked almost 8,000 participants over a 45-year period, researchers found that those who spent more uninterrupted time sitting were more likely to have died over the course of the study period. Those who showed the highest risk of death were specifically those who spent over 12.5 hours sitting per day in uninterrupted increments of 30 minutes or longer.
So, at the very least, try to get up and walk around for every half hour that you’ve been sitting.
It’s so simple, but it’s not easy to do.
I know that there’s only so much time you have in a day and the demands of work can be overwhelming at times. Just as well, you might be afraid that forcing yourself to take a break might fracture your state of flow and make it harder to refocus when you come back to your desk.
I get it. I deal with this every day, too.
But if the science is there, then there’s good reason to do everything you can to make this a priority. I always recommend using a timer to remind yourself to take a break.
You might be interested in learning about the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in increments of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break.
The Second Most Important Thing You Can Do
The second most important thing you can do during your work day after taking frequent breaks to get up and walk is to move your body as often as you can while you spend time sitting at your desk.
You can do this by by doing simple seated stretches and exercises. In fact, even fidgeting—such as toe tapping—has benefits.
According to another 2017 study on non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), fidgeting might even be better for your health than a standing desk.
When researchers tracked the metabolic rates of 16 participants over a 15-minute period at three different workstations (seated, standing, or seated with modest leg movement), they found that the seated modest movement (not characterized by structured exercise) workstation resulted in a seven-percent increase in metabolic rate compared to the standing workstation.
This is solid proof that the basic, everyday movements you perform all throughout the day count toward your health.
If fidgeting has benefits, then so must seated stretches and exercises.
Your List of Simple Seated Stretches and Exercises to Do at Your Desk (With Photos Featuring Yours Truly!)
Stretches are a good place to start—especially if you’ve been sitting for a while and want to warm up to some seated exercises afterward.
You can do all of the following stretches and exercises in a desk chair while seated at your desk. Some might require a little more room than others, but nothing more than what you need to fully extend your limbs outward.
To show you how dedicated I am to making my blog content as good and as complete as possible, I set aside an entire hour of my time to star in a photoshoot in my home office for each and every one of these stretches and exercises. (And yes, I was sweaty by the end of it.)
I know that photos go a long way and are much easier to consume opposed to seemingly endless blocks of text, which is why I wanted to include them. So bear with me as I model for you!
Important Note: These photos and instructions are for information purposes only. Please follow and perform them at your own risk!
Neck rolls can never replace proper desk ergonomics (a.k.a. having a proper desk chair and monitor setup at eye level), but they can certainly help relieve tension and stiffness.
Sit up straight and start by tilting your head slightly to the left until the right side of your neck tightens. Hold it there for a few seconds, then slowly roll it forward until your head is tilted to the right.
Tip: Don’t roll your head backward! Always go forward.
Shoulder rolls can relieve built up stress in the shoulders and upper back by improving the range of motion of the shoulder joints.
Imagine tracing a circle with your shoulders. Do a few forward circles first and then a few in the other direction.
Shoulder raises are almost exactly the same as shoulder rolls, but easier since they’re done without the circular motion. They also help to relieve tension in the shoulders, neck, and upper back.
Raise your shoulders up toward your ears (like shrugging), hold for a couple of seconds, then release them.
Tip: You can do one shoulder at a time if you like, alternating beside left and right.
The side body isn’t as much of an obvious part of the body to stretch, but doing it will benefit the body as a whole. A good side stretch will release tension from the muscles that attach to the ribs and the muscles between them. You’ll also help to create more space for the lungs, diaphragm, heart, and digestive organs.
Reach your left arm up toward the ceiling and rest your right arm anywhere that’s comfortable—such as on your armrest or directly on your seat. You can grab your armrest or your seat to help with stability. Lean your torso to the right as you keep reaching and lengthening your arm as much as possible, so you feel a nice stretch on the left side of your abdomen. Hold for 20 seconds or longer and repeat on the other side.
Tip: To deepen the stretch, revolve your torso slightly upward so that your chest opens up toward the ceiling.
As desk workers, we spend most of our workdays with our arms forward in front of us and our chests closed. Over time, repeated performance of tasks that require us to extend our arms out in front of us can lead to limited range of motion in the shoulder joints, weakened chest strength/flexibility, and even a rounded upper back.
A simple chest opening stretch you can do involves sitting up straight, extending your arms out to each side and pushing your chest forward. Your shoulders and arms will move back slightly.
Tip: You can do this same stretch by placing your hands behind your head.
Reverse prayer is a yoga pose that looks simple, but will leave you feeling the stretch in more parts of your body than you might expect. In addition to opening the chest, it helps release tension in the shoulders and improves flexibility in the wrists and forearms. If you spend a lot of time typing or using a mouse, this is a great counter stretch for your hands.
Maintaining good posture, bring your arms behind your back. If you shoulders, arms, or back are extra tight, you’ll probably want to stick with the modified version of reverse prayer by simply crossing your arms and grabbing opposite elbows with your hands.
If you’re more flexible, you can bring the palms of your hands together into a prayer position with your fingertips facing upward. The sides of your hands should be resting firmly up against the middle of your back.
Tip: Don’t try to push your chest and shoulders forward to the point that it’s painful, just to get into this pose. Stick with the modified version and work your way up toward the full version as your flexibility improves.
Another popular yoga pose is cat-cow—one of the most basic and beneficial stretches you can do for your back. In addition to increasing the flexibility of the spine, it also releases tension in the neck, shoulders, back, and torso while also providing a gentle massage for the abdominal organs.
Sitting up straight with your hands resting in your lap, slowly inhale as you arch your back by pushing your hips forward and opening your chest. Then exhale as you roll your hips back, curl your shoulders forward, and lower your chin toward your chest.
A chair yoga variation of the original standing forward bend pose, this stretch is great when you need to target the lower back. This traditionally restorative pose also helps calm the brain and central nervous system.
Simply bend at the hips and fold your upper body over your legs, resting your torso on your thighs. Let your arms hang freely down toward the floor.
Spinal twists help to lengthen the spine, relieving tension right from the shoulders and down to the lower back. The longer you can lengthen your spine, the deeper you’ll be able to get into your twist.
Start by sitting slightly forward in your chair with your knees together, anchoring your hips to your seat. Take a deep breath and sit up straight, lengthening your spine as much as you can.
Without moving your hips or losing length in your spine, exhale as you twist your torso to the right and grab your left knee with your right arm. Place your left hand behind you and grab your seat, armrest, or back of your chair for stability. Repeat on the other side.
Tip: Use your hand to pull gently on your knee so you can twist deeper, but remember to keep your hips anchored and your spine tall.
Seated triangle is yet another yoga pose variation. It involves a slight twist of the spine with a side stretch, helping to relieve stiffness from the entire back body.
Sit up straight and comfortably in your chair with your legs hip distance apart. Extend both arms out horizontally, take an inhale and then exhale as you fold forward—twisting to the right so that your arms go vertical. The left arm should extend down to the floor while the right arm should extend up toward the ceiling.
Keep your head aligned with your chest or optionally tilt it slightly to look upward, as long as it doesn’t cause pain. Repeat on the other side.
Tip: If you can’t get your hand all the way to the floor, try grabbing the calf or ankle of the opposite leg.
This is one of the most basic stretches you can do for your shoulders. It’s great if you’ve been tapping away at a keyboard all day or performing any other forward facing tasks with your arms.
Take your left horizontally across your chest and use your right arm to lock it in place by bending at your elbow (so your forearm is extended upward). Use your right arm to gently tug backward on your left arm to deepen the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
This one is for all you typists and computer workers out there. You might never know just how much tension is really in your hands, wrists, and forearms until you hold this stretch.
Extend your left arm out in front of you so that the palm of your hand is facing the ceiling. Use the four fingers of your right hand across the four fingers of your left hand to gently pull the entire hand at the wrist joint downward—as much as you can without it feeling painful. Repeat with the right arm.
The chair yoga version of eagle takes the balance aspect out of the pose and is also a great modification if you’re working your way up to the full version. It incorporates pretzel-like twists to stretch the shoulders and upper back, engage the core, and strengthen the lower body.
Sitting up straight, take your left arm, bend it at the elbow and cross it over your bent right arm—so that the bottom of your left elbow is held in place by the inside of your right elbow. If you can, hold the palms of your hands together as if in prayer.
Now take your right leg and cross it over your left. You can keep it crossed simply or try to wedge the top of your right foot underneath your left calf.
Tip: It’s harder to wrap your foot around your calf with shoes on, so you might want to try taking your shoe off. If the legs are too much, just keep them in a normal seated position while you focus on the arm portion of the pose.
Sitting for long periods of time can lead to some seriously tight hips. Pigeon pose (again taken from yoga) performed in a chair will help to open the hip joints, lengthen the hip flexors, and stretch the upper leg muscles.
Sitting comfortably in your chair, take your right leg, bend it at the knee and cross it over your left thigh so that your right calf or ankle rests on it. Since everyone’s hip flexibility is different, your bent leg may be very open so that it can rest horizontally over your left leg, or it may be very tight—requiring you to keep your bent leg resting slightly at an angle.
Tip: If you have good hip flexibility, you can take this stretch deeper by folding your upper body over your bent leg.
If you have tight hip flexors from the limited range of motion associated with sitting, you might as well have tight hamstrings too . These are the muscles at the back of your legs, which affect the extension of the hips and the bending of the knees. There are lots of different ways you can stretch the hamstrings, but this one is one of the easiest—and perfect for beginners with more tightness.
Sit at the edge of your seat and take note of your posture, making sure you’re sitting as straight up as you can. Keep your left leg bent and secured to the floor for stability as you extend your right leg out straight—resting your heel on the floor. Place your hands right above your right knee, flex your right foot, and bend your torso forward—straight like a hinge as far as you comfortably can. You should feel it in the back of your legs.
Use your hands to push down and forward slightly on your leg for deepening the stretch a bit. Make sure you don’t round back. A straight back is essential to targeting the hamstrings.
If you’ve got flat feet like me or don’t wear shoes with proper support, then you might experience tension around your feet and lower legs. Ankle stretches can help strengthen weakened muscles in the ankles while also offering a slight stretch for the shins and calves.
Sit comfortably and lift your left leg up straight in front of you, as parallel to the floor as you can get. Point your toe and hold it for a few seconds, then flex your foot so it’s perpendicular to the floor, holding again for a few seconds. Repeat this with the other leg.
Tip: You can also improve the range of motion of you ankles by turning this stretch into ankle circles. Do this by tracing circles with your toe from the ankle joint. This will have you alternating between a pointed toe and flexed foot.
Hip marches are great for strengthening the hips flexors and thighs. Even though they’re generally recommended for seniors with limited mobility, us desk workers can also benefit from them.
Sit up straight in your chair, but avoid resting your back up against your chair. With your legs hip distance apart, engage your core and lift your right up as high as you can from the hip joint. Hold it for a few seconds, then release it back down and repeat with the left—continuing to alternate your legs.
Tip: You can hold onto the seat or armrests for the easy version. To make it harder by engaging your core even more, leave your arms resting by your sides.
Want to kick it up a notch? Toe taps can be used as a slightly more intense variation of hip marches. In addition to working the thighs and hip flexors, they can help you build heat and get a mild cardio effect the faster you go!
Without resting your back up against your chair, sit up straight and hold onto the bottom of your seat or your armrests with your legs resting hip distance apart. Lift your left leg from the hip joint so that it comes off the floor, then bring it back down to tap just the toe to the floor as you lift the right leg from the hip joint. Alternate back and forth at a quickened pace.
Tip: If you want to make this even harder, try extending your legs out a bit further (but still bent at the knee).
Arm circles can help prime the shoulders for harder upper body exercises by loosening the muscles, improving flexibility of the shoulder joints, and serving as a natural body weight move for the arms. Do it long enough and you might just build a bit of heat.
Extend your arms outward horizontally to the left and right at shoulder height. Start by tracing circles in the air with your hands from the shoulder joints. Do a few circles forward and then do a few backwards.
Tip: For greater flexibility, increase your range of motion by creating bigger circles.
Bent-Over Reverse Fly
As a desk worker, not only is it important to stretch your back, but strengthen it too. The seated bent-over reverse fly is a popular gym exercise done with dumbbells to strengthen some of the smaller muscles of the shoulders and upper back (the rear deltoids), but you don’t need them if your form is good.
Sit up straight on the edge of your seat and then hinge forward slightly from the hips so your torso is approximately at a 45-degree angle. Making fists as if you did have dumbbells, let your arms dangle naturally, then using your shoulders and back muscles, inhale and lift them up. They should lift up and backward so that your shoulder blades come together.
Located at the back of the arms, the tricep muscles are more important than you might think. The triceps are responsible for all pushing movements, some pulling movements, and any other movements that involve holding the arms close to the body. That includes fine movements, like handwriting or using a computer mouse.
Tricep extensions are often performed with a dumbbell or a resistance band, but like the bent-over reverse fly, you don’t really need one if you engage your muscles and use the correct form.
Sit up straight in the middle or at the edge of your seat (closer to the edge if the back of your chair is tall). Extend your arms straight up toward ceiling, making fists in each hand and joining them together to touch. Keeping your your arms below the elbows as stable as possible, squeeze the triceps and bend the elbows so that your fists move back behind your head. Pause slightly and then lift them back up again from the elbow joints with your arms as stable as possible.
Tip: Keep an eye out for shrugging your shoulders or moving your arms too far in front of your head. Relax your neck and keep your arms at the sides of your head, within your peripheral vision.
Leg Lifts (With Optional Hip Thrusts)
Now we’re getting into some of the really fun desk exercises. This particular exercise is really a two-in-one.
Leg lifts will work the hip flexors, legs, and abdominal muscles. Hip thrusts just intensify it for all those same areas.
To perform leg lifts, sit at the edge of your seat and firmly grab the armrests or the seat of your chair. Lean back as you engage your core, inhale and lift your legs—keeping them bent—as high or as close to your chest as is comfortable. Exhale as you gently release them back down.
Now to perform optional hip thrusts, you can extend your legs as far out as you can when you bring them up during your leg lifts. You can keep them slightly bent or straighten them fully. To come out of it, bend your legs all the way first while still raised, then release them back down.
Tip: Don’t just drop your legs back down to the floor. Instead, use the muscles in your core, hips, and legs to control them down.
I almost didn’t want to include this one in this list because of how insanely ridiculous I look in the photo on the right, but I knew it was worth keeping. Who knew you could do a modified version of jumping jacks while sitting down?!
Sit at the edge of your seat with your knees and legs together and your arms bent upward together at your chest. Take a deep breath in and out, then engage your core, lean back a little and inhale as your extend all of your limbs outward. Repeat this at a slow pace for more of a controlled body weight type of exercise or faster to get a cardio effect.
Tip: To make this slightly harder, try not to touch the floor with your feet when you extend all your limbs out. You can do this by flexing your feet rather than pointing them.
Cross Toe Touches
I bet you didn’t think you could get a full body workout with one chair move, did you? Cross toe touches work everything including the arms, the shoulders, the core, the hips, and even the legs. As if that wasn’t awesome enough, it’s also a great cardio exercise.
Sit at the edge of your chair with your knees wide—at least shoulder width apart or more. Lean forward by hinging at the waist and then twist your torso so that your left arm touches your right toe while your right arm extends up and your left leg extends outward. Twist to the opposite side, raising and lowering opposite arms while bending and lengthening opposite legs. Alternate as fast as you can if you really want to get your heart rate up.
Tip: This move is easier when you slide your feet along the floor, but you can make it harder by adjusting the height of your chair so that it’s higher. This way, you can keep your feet off the floor.
I saved the best for last. Everyone loves a basic squat, right? The great thing about having your desk chair with you is that you can use it as a squat barrier. Squats work all those big lower body muscles—including the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and even the calves. They’re also much more of a discrete move since it looks like you’re just sitting and standing back up.
Standing up straight in front of your chair with your legs hip distance apart, bend your knees and shift most of your body weight into your heels. Keep bending, making sure that you can still see your toes. Stop just before you hit your chair’s seat and stand back up, but avoid locking your knees when you’re all the way back up. Repeat several times.
Tip: If you can adjust the height of your desk chair, try lowering it to challenge yourself to squat deeper.
Bonus Exercise: Plank
I know that 25 exercises was probably enough, but I wanted to include a little bonus one just for the heck of it. Plank is an extra fun one to do on a chair that has wheels, because it will really challenge your stabilizer muscles.
To get into plank on a chair that has wheels, start by kneeling in front of the seat of your chair and placing your elbows on it shoulder distance apart. Hold your hands by lacing your fingers together. Using your shoulders and arms to hold your upper body up, engage your entire core as you extend one leg straight out behind you and place the ball of your foot on the floor. Do the same with the other leg and foot.
Tip: Your body should be like a straight line. Use your shoulders and upper back to push yourself up from your chair’s seat. Squeeze your glutes and quads together to support work done by the core. Activating all these parts of your body will help you avoid sticking your butt in the air or sagging your torso toward the floor.
I hope you learned a few new interesting moves that you can try out at your desk the next time you’re feeling stiff or tense. If you work in close proximity to other coworkers, you might want to invite them to try some of these desk exercises out too.
There’s just one more benefit to performing desk stretches and exercises that I wanted to point out before I finish this post, and that’s the benefit of being able to move stuck emotional energy out of your body.
The benefits of movement go far beyond the physical. In addition to science backing this claim, many ancient and traditional belief systems say that we store negative energies in our bodies, and they tend to manifest through physical symptoms like stiffness, tension, pain, and even illness.
Movement can help heal you emotionally—even when it’s performed in the most basic forms.
Prolonged sitting may be an increasingly dire problem faced by society, but by choosing to remain aware of the consequences and prioritize your health, you can be just as healthy as anyone else who gets to move all day at their job—if not more!
Go ahead and leave a comment describing some of the things you try to do to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting, and share this post on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or wherever else if you think it might help even just one other desk worker.