There’s a new modern killer – sitting.
Usually we think a chair is only dangerous if someone throws it at you, but research published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrologyshowed that sitting for long periods increased your likelihood of dying younger. That’s bad news if you’re in a desk job, but the researchers said you can fight back for a healthy and longer life by getting up out of your chair and being active for two minutes every hour – even just walking.
Sitting for long periods is also simply physically damaging, especially if you’re at a computer, on the phone, writing or drawing. There’s a build-up of tension through the neck and upper back (which often causes headaches), plus there’s a stiffening and shortening of mobility through the shoulders, chest, lower back, hamstrings and glutes. Too much time in the chair can make it easy to injure your back due to tight hip flexors, or you get sore in the knees from a tightening of the ilio-tibial band (ITB, which goes from hip to knee along the outer side of your thigh). Sitting can even put large amounts of pressure on the spinal discs and ligaments.
So if you’re chained to the desk, the best exercises you can do at your workstation involve standing up. We’ve kept in mind that you might not have a lot of space or be able to go out of arm’s reach of your desk, and the fact that you probably don’t want to sweat, huff and puff or look ridiculous to your colleagues or clients. No yoga pants required. Here’s what we came up with:
Air squats / chair squats
Squatting well helps with almost everything in life – the strength of your legs, butt and core muscles, as well as improving mobility through the ligaments and tendons in the legs, hips and ankles. Squat with feet flat on the floor, knees over your feet, chest lifted and spine neutral to make a straight diagonal line from your hip to the back of your head. Go down as far as you can while keeping your feet flat on the floor. A subtler version is to go to sit in your chair, hover your butt over the seat for a few seconds, then stand up again.
This exercise for dancers stretches out the hip flexors and works the glutes and hamstrings. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold onto your desk or chair for balance. Shift your weight to your left leg and extend the right leg a little way off the floor behind you while keeping your torso upright. Now slowly circle your right leg clockwise 20 times and counter-clockwise 20 times. Swap legs.
Behind neck triceps press
This one works the arms and will stretch your chest and shoulders. Grab a light weight in both hands – e.g. a big book or diary, a bottle of water. Now stand with a slight bend at the knees and hips and hold the weight with straight arms directly over your head. Bend at the elbows to lower the weight to the small of your back, pause, then press back to the start position. This can also be done in your chair.
Power leg posture
Stand with your heels at hip width and toes facing out. Now push up high onto your toes, slightly bend your knees, and squeeze your glutes and abs tight. You can inconspicuously just hold there, or you can slowly lower yourself about 10cm, pushing knees out in same direction as your toes, then return to the start position. Repeat for sets of 10.
This yoga pose works on stretching and working the muscles of the rotator cuff and other areas through the shoulder, as well as the big back muscles (lats) and triceps.
Stand and take a step back from your desk. Bend forward to 90 degrees at the waist and place your elbows on the desk (raise you arms up on a book or folder if you need). Have your forearms vertical with hands together, and tense your abs so you pull your tummy in towards your back to support the spine. Put gentle pressure down through your elbows and hold for 1-3 minutes.
Standing leg curl
Stand with feet close together and gently kick one foot back, aiming the heel for the top of your thigh while holding your torso still and vertical. Lower the foot back down slowly and repeat for up to 10 reps at a time before switching legs. Hold onto your chair for balance only if you need to.
Shoulder blade squeeze
Stand and stretch your arms out straight to the sides at shoulder height. Now try to squeeze your shoulder blades together tight as if you are trying to hold a pen there. Hold it tight as you can for 10-20 seconds. If you’re pressed for space, bend your arms to 90 degrees. You can also do this while sitting.
Stand and bring your left arm behind your back and your right arm behind your head. Clasp the fingers of your hands together if you can, or use a strap or a ruler to bridge the gap between hands. Hold for five to eight deep breaths, then swap arm positions. This can also be done seated.
Stuck in your chair? Try these 3 ab exercises
Slide your butt to the front edge of the chair and hold the edge of your chair next to your thighs. Lean back to 45 degrees or as much as the chair allows. Now tighten your abs and extend your legs together in line with your torso, feet just off the floor. Draw both knees in towards your midsection while breathing out. Hold at the top for a couple seconds, then slowly extend back to the start position. Repeat 10-15 times.
Desk chair swivel
If you have a swivel chair, you can discreetly do this exercise to work the obliques and loosen up around your hips and lower back. Hold onto the edge of the desk and push your chair back enough so that you can straighten your arms. Keeping your head and chest face-on to your desk, use your abs and obliques to twist your chair round to one side and then the other.
This is a little harder on the arms and shoulders. Sit a little forward in your chair, lift your feet off the floor and push your hands into the seat on either side of your hips to raise your butt and legs off the seat. Push your shoulders down as you do this – you should feel your deep abdominal muscles working, too. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths.