Have you ever stood up from a chair and felt your muscles tighten like vice grips around your shoulders, back and legs? Maybe your legs even “fell asleep”, or your wrists ached from over-mousing. It’s easy to lose track of how long I’ve been sitting in the same position and find myself with tight and angry muscles. Over the years, my husband and I have done some inventive things to keep our bodies from seizing up during marathon meetings, road trips, or even movie marathons. I’ve tried double pigeon pose, in office chair, with lumbar pillow (FAIL. I do NOT recommend.). He’ll bust out a few sets of pushups and situps during Zoom meetings.
Sitting in the same posture for extended periods of time is hard on our bodies. Here are 10 exercises – 3 stretches and 7 strength-building moves – to keep you limber and loose through your workday … or an extended period on the sofa.
My personal “work” situation looks like this: I used to have exclusive use of our home office, complete with L-shaped desk, bookshelves, etc. Now that my husband is also working from home, and kids are schooling from home, I’ve relocated to a corner in our dining room. I’m using a very small desk that barely fits my laptop, monitor, and a notebook or two. It is not ergonomically-friendly, and after a few hours, I feel like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
+ Me + 2 Hours =
I imagine there are other people – maybe you – who have similar experiences at your home or actual office. That’s why I’m writing this! During the workday, I try to take mini-breaks every 30 minutes or so, look away from my screen, and stretch, move, etc. for 2 – 5 minutes.
I use these 10 stretches and exercises during my mini-breaks. They help prevent tight/sore muscles, alleviate pain from repetitive stress injuries, and even tone your muscles.
What It Is & What You Can Expect:
- 3 stretches to loosen tight muscles.
- 7 exercises to increase blood flow and tone muscles.
- Each exercise takes less than one minute.
- No equipment needed.
- No sweating or jumping required.
- Exercise clothing not needed, although I recommend taking heels off if you’re wearing them!
I even put on “work clothes” for the demo photos of these exercises!
One of the biggest drawbacks of being at a desk for hours is tight & sore muscles. Here are three stretches that target common muscle complaints. Hold each stretch for 15 – 30 seconds (longer if you have time).
1. Neck, Upper Shoulders Stretch
- Seated or standing, lean your left ear toward your left shoulder and hold, letting gravity pull your head down.
- Repeat on the other side.
2. Wrists, Arms, Shoulders, Upper Back, Side Body
- Seated or standing, clasp hands together & raise arms above your head, wrists flexed & palms facing up.
- Push your arms up, stretching upward and hold, as pictured:
- Lean gently to one side, keeping arms as straight as possible. Hold. Repeat on the other side.
3. Lower Back, Hamstrings
- Seated: Extend one leg straight, resting your heel on the ground with toes pointed up.
- Reach toward your toes, as shown below. It’s OK if you don’t actually reach your toes; simply bend forward until you feel a nice stretch in the back of your thigh (hamstring) and/or lower back. Hold and repeat on the other leg.
- Standing: Bend at the waist & let your head, arms & hands hang toward your toes. Hold.
A big downside of extended sitting is that our muscles – including the heart muscle – get little to no action. The following exercises will engage key muscles & increase blood circulation in your body.
Aim to do 6 – 12 repetitions of each exercise, increasing the number as you are able.
4. Desk or Traditional Push-Ups
- Push-ups can be done leaning on your desk or on the floor (see this link for plank or modified push-ups).
- Put your hands against the edge of your desk and step back until your body forms a straight line, from head to feet. In this pic, my back is curved – try to keep yours straight from shoulder to hip.
- Bend your elbows to lower your chest to the desk, keeping your back and legs in a straight line.
- Then, keep your elbows tucked in and use your arms to push yourself back up to the starting position.
5. Desk Chair Dip
- Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair (stabilize a rolling chair against the desk or wall!).
- Rest your hands on the edge of the chair, wrapping your fingers around the front edge.
- Straighten your legs out in front of you, placing your heals firmly on the ground.
- Lift your butt up and forward off the chair & lower yourself by bending your elbows back until they are at a 90-degree angle.
- Then, straighten your elbows to lift yourself back up.
In the pictures above, I’m keeping my legs straight. If you feel unstable with your legs straight, go ahead and bend your knees, so that your feet are flat on the floor. When you gain strength and stability, you may wish to straighten your legs – it will cause you to lift more of your body weight, thus building muscle.
Very Important! If you have a rolling chair, make sure it is stabilized against a wall or other very stable structure. Notice my chair is backed up to the wall.
- Stand with feet a little wider than hip-distance apart.
- Keeping your hips back and knees open, bend at the knees and sit into a squat position, as if you were sitting down on an imaginary chair.
- Go only as low as you can while keeping heals and toes on the ground, chest up, & shoulders back.
- Return to standing by pressing into your feet to engage your butt and thigh muscles.
7. Seated Crunches and Ab Rotators
- Seated Crunches: Sitting tall in a chair, lower your chest towards your thighs, using only your ab muscles. Pause, then return to the starting position.
- Seated Rotators: Clasp your hands at chest level. Using only your abs, rotate your upper body as far as you can in one direction. Pause, then repeat in the other direction.
8. Calf Raises
- From a standing position, push through the balls of your feet to raise your heels until you are standing on your toes. Lightly grab onto a chair, wall, etc. as needed for balance.
- Slowly lower back to the start.
- No pic. You know how to go on your tippy-toes!
9. Leg Extensions
- Leg extensions can be done seated or standing. Start with one leg bent at a right angle from the knee. If you’re seated, both legs will already be in this position.
- Extend the leg as straight as possible in front of you, using the quadriceps (front thigh) muscle to perform the movement. Lower your leg and repeat on the other side.
- Seated leg extension:
- Standing leg extension:
10. Standing March
- Stand up straight with your arms at your side and march in place, lifting your knees as high as you can and pumping your arms as if you’re in a marching band.
- This exercise will work the legs, abdominal muscles, and improve your balance.
- No pic – you know how to do this. Maybe put on some marching band music … here’s an aptly named one from OK Go.
If you’re not able to get outside or go to the gym, there are still lots of ways to keep muscles happy during long days of sitting. Even 1-5 minutes of stretching and moving several times a day will help your body feel better, boost your metabolism, and engage neglected muscles.
- Hunchback of Notre Dame image courtesy of www.fineartamerica.com.
- “10 Shoulder Mobility Exercises and Stretches.” Healthline, 10 Jan 2020, www.https://www.healthline.com/health/shoulder-mobility-exercises.
- “How to Do a Push Up.” WikiHow, WikiHow, www.wikihow.com/Do-a-Push-Up.
- “Try These Neck Stretches at Work.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 Oct. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/multimedia/neck-stretches/vid-20084697
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. The information I provide is based on my personal experience, education and study of dietetics, human nutrition, and biochemistry; and my experience as a runner and athlete. Any recommendations I may make about exercise, nutrition, supplements or lifestyle; or information provided to you in person or on this website are for information purposes only and do not take the place of professional medical advice.