Many of us spend upwards of nine or more hours per day sitting at our desks. Not only does this usually equate to poor posture and inactivity, but with work consuming so much of the day, there’s also a good chance we can’t always get in the workout we hoped to do after we’ve finally clocked out.
Incorporating exercise into the work day—right at your desk—feeds your body bursts of activity to break up the sedentary marathon in your office chair. It boosts metabolism, gets the blood flowing, increases focus, and floods the body and mind with energy and feel-good endorphins. Plus, research indicates that exercise during the workday improves mood, productivity, time management, and task tolerance.
In a perfect world, perhaps we would all have treadmill desks or under-the-desk cycles and log many miles over the course of the day, but that’s not always practical or possible. At least it’s not for me. But, I still want to stay somewhat active at my desk during the workday, so I can tone up, get fitter, and feel healthier despite sitting for most of the day. That way, I can go to bed at night knowing I did something good for my body even if I couldn’t get in a full workout or make it to the gym. After all, my personal belief is that some exercise is better than no exercise. So, to help me establish an easy desk workout routine, I turned to two fitness experts who shared a variety of exercises that can be seamlessly incorporated into the workday.
Keen to be less sedentary at your desk? Read on for 30 exercises you can easily do at your desk to help you stay active and tone up while you work.
Meet the Expert
- Elizabeth Kovar is an ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, yoga instructor, and the author of Finding Om: An Indian Journey of Rickshaws, Chai, Chapattis and Gurus.
Head Nod Series
“Sitting at a desk and looking at a screen for long periods of time can cause strain to the muscles in the neck and cervical region,” says Danclar. “This head nod series will strengthen those muscles to reduce stress and pain.”
For the first part of the series, bring your chin to your chest and hold it there for a full inhale and exhale. Then, lift your head up towards neutral and beyond, looking up towards the ceiling. Hold again for a full breath. “The range of motion will differ from person to person, so try not to overstretch,” advises Danclar. For the second part of the series, start with your head back in its neutral position and tilt your right ear down towards your right shoulder. Hold for one breath. Then bring your head back to neutral, and repeat for the left shoulder. For the third part of the series, bring your head back to neutral and then rotate it in small circles. Start with clockwise, and then rotate counterclockwise.
Shoulder Rolls and Shrugs
If you’re slouching in a chair all day or have your hands in front of your body typing, your shoulders are likely to get tight and your posture may be slumped forward. Here’s an easy, little move to help. “Prepare to be wonderfully relaxed,” shares Danclar. “Keeping the hands neutral by your side, roll your shoulders forward three times and repeat, rolling backwards. Next, bring the shoulders to their neutral position and shrug them up towards the ears. Then drop the shoulders down, preferably with a big ‘whoosh’ breath.” She says to repeat three times.
Seated or Standing Y’s
Kovar says this exercise increases upper back and shoulder strength, specifically the postural muscles. Sit upright in your chair with a neutral spine and good posture. “Spread your fingertips and place the outside of the pinky fingers on your thighs, thumbs facing the ceiling. Keep a soft bend at the elbow, and lift the arms into the air in a ‘Y’ shape, and then return back to the starting position,” she explains. “It's similar to a cheerleader lifting poms into the air. Imagine the palms ‘slice’ into the air.” Complete 10-15 reps.
Wrist Flexion and Extension
Carpal tunnel syndrome is unfortunately a common office malady for those who spend the greater part of their day in front of a keyboard. Stretch and strengthen your wrist flexors and extensors and give the median nerve, which runs down the center of your wrist, a little break from any compression. With a steady wrist, simply alternate bringing your hand upwards as if gesturing “stop,” with bringing your palms down as far as they will go like the follow through from shooting a basketball.
“Dips are an effective exercise to strengthen the back of the arm, the triceps,” notes Kovar. Your arms will be behind you on the chair while you lower your butt towards the ground. To do this, sit at the very edge of the chair with your hands on either side of your butt, fingers over the front edge of the chair. “Place the soles of the feet on the floor, knees bent to 90 degrees (for a more challenging dip, keep the legs straight and heels on the ground),” says Kovar. “Lower the torso toward the ground, bending elbows to 90 degrees, and then straighten the arms back to the starting position.” Be sure to press through your palms and use your triceps to lift your body back up—don’t lift from your hips. Complete 12 reps.
Desk Push-Ups With Knee Drive
We all know that push-ups are great for toning the chest, arms, and core, but they can be really challenging. This variation can give you some of the same benefits, even if you’re not yet able to do a traditional push-up. “An incline pushup is achievable for most people, as the gravity on the body is less than on the floor, allowing [you] to complete a full range of motion,” explains Kovar. “The knee drive promotes further core stability, so it strengthens the entire front side of the body.” To do this move, place your hands on the edge of the desk, and walk your feet back to where your body forms a straight incline plank from your heels to your head. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder distance. “Engage the core and lower the body towards the desk (avoid bending at the hips), bending the elbows toward 90 degrees,” says Kovar. “Return the arms back to the starting position and then drive your right knee forward, and back, and then the left knee forward and back to its starting position.” Complete 12 reps.
Reverse Fly Squeezes
One of the common consequences of sitting at a desk all day with poor posture is tight chest muscles and overstretched and weakened upper back muscles. Using good posture, pull your shoulders back. Then, bring your arms out to the side in a big letter “T.” Then, squeezing your shoulder blades together, pulse your outstretched arms back behind you towards one another, opening up your chest and using your upper back muscles (traps and rhomboids). Complete 10 slow reps.
Forward and Lateral Raises
This exercise works your deltoids, the muscles that make up your shoulders. Hold a pair of light weights, water bottles, or a weighted objects. “Start with your weights by your side then raise your arms up and forward. Try to make sure weights are parallel with your shoulders during the full motion,” explains Danclar. “Hold at the top for two seconds, and then bring the weights back to the starting position.” Complete five repetitions. Then, bring the weights out to the side so that your body forms a giant letter “T.” After your arms are parallel to the floor, lower them back down. Complete five repetitions.
If you’re feeling stressed or have some pent up frustration, this move becomes even more effective. Grab a few water bottles or a desk object with a little weight for each hand and stand with your feet staggered, one somewhat in front of the other. Then, rapidly punch your arms forward in succession, as if boxing. You’ll blast away tension and angst, raise your heart rate, get your blood circulating, and work your shoulders, arms, upper back, and core.
Marching in Place
“This is a great way to get low-impact cardio at your desk. Marching in place is as simple walking or you can raise the knees,” says Danclar. “You can also alter the tempo of the movement for different intensity levels.” Drive your knees up with each step.
Having a lightweight jump rope tucked in your desk drawer is an easy way to get in some quick cardio. But, even if you don’t have a jump rope, you can reap the same benefits by simulating the activity—moving your wrists at your sides and jumping—without a rope. It’s a fantastic way to increase your heart rate, get your muscles moving, burn a few calories, and improve bone density. If you do use a rope, you’ll also work on your agility and coordination. Try several bouts of 30 seconds to three minutes throughout your workday for an invigorating boost of energy.
This classic is a perfect option for the office because you don’t need any equipment. Just make sure you have enough space so you don’t accidentally send your papers flying. You’ll boost your heart rate, burn a few calories, and get your blood flowing, helping you feel more alert. Depending on your fitness level, try sets of 10-50 sprinkled throughout the day.
Desk Mountain Climbers
Move your chair to the side and face your desk, placing your hands along the lip of the desk, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lower your body into a push-up position by bringing your feet back and keeping a straight line with your body from the top of your head to your heels. Maintaining this good, neutral posture with your spine and your hips back behind you, hop one leg forward and one back, scissoring your legs as you alternate. Your heart rate will spike and you’ll notice yourself getting breathless as you go, so you’ll get a nice little cardio workout. Continue jumping your feet forward and back in rapid succession for 30 seconds. Work up to 2-3 minutes.
This is another simple way to get your heart rate up—you’ll improve your agility, too. If you have a tiled floor, stand with both feet together on one side of the line between two tiles. Otherwise, just imagine a line in the floor and stand to one side of it. Keeping your feet together, hop both feet simultaneously and quickly side to side over the line for 30 seconds. Keep your core tight, your knees slightly bent, and your gaze forward.
To stretch and strengthen the muscles in your lower legs and ankles, draw each letter of the alphabet with your foot as you sit and plug away at your work. Then switch sides.
This is another good ankle mobility exercise. “You can choose to stand or sit at your desk for this exercise,” says Danclar. It will be more difficult if you stand. By alternating lifting your toes and heels off the floor, you’ll stretch and strengthen the muscles along your shins in the front and calves in the back. Your feet should be in their neutral position. Then, lift your heels off the ground, balancing on just your toes, and then move back to neutral. Next, lift your toes off the ground so you are on your heels. Cycle back and forth at least 10 times.
Simply standing and balancing on one leg at a time challenges your core, glutes, hips, and smaller stabilizing muscles in your feet and ankles. Start with 30 seconds per leg and gradually increase the length of time you can balance before switching sides. This is a perfect activity to take on during a phone call.
Seated Quad Squeezes
If you’re not in the mood for squats of lunges, or tend to suffer knee pain, this is a good alternative to work your quads. Sit up straight towards the edge of your chair and place your hands on the chair on either side of your thighs. Focus on contracting your quads to straighten your legs, lifting your feet and shins until they are parallel to the floor. Squeeze your quads and hold the straightened position for breath or two, then slowly lower by bending your knees. Complete 15-20 reps. You can increase the intensity of this exercise by throwing on a pair of ankle weights that you can easily stash in your desk.
Standing Leg Curls
This easy exercise is a great adjunct to squats and lunges because it works the muscles that oppose the quads—the hamstrings and glutes. Stand upright with good posture and keep your knees in line together. Then, squeeze your glutes as your bend the knee on one side, bringing your heel up behind your towards your butt. You should feel the muscles in the back of your thigh (your hamstrings) contract. Slowly lower back to the ground. Complete 12-15 reps on one leg and then switch sides. For an extra challenge, hover your hands over your desk instead of holding on—this will test your balance and engage your core.
Chair Bulgarian Lunges
Lunges are powerful sculptors and strengtheners of the lower body, and this variation also challenges your balance. Stand in front of your chair facing away from it. Bring one foot behind you so that the ball of your foot is on the seat of the chair, toes facing forward. Your front leg should be far enough forward that when you lunge down, your knee can bend to 90 degrees without going forward beyond the toes of that foot. “Perform a lunge as the back knee dips toward the ground, and then return upwards to the starting position,” says Kovar. Complete 10-12 reps on each leg.
Here’s an easy move to get enviable, toned calves. “You can do this exercise sitting, standing while holding onto something for balance, or free standing with weights by your side,” notes Danclar. It will be more challenging if you stand because you’ll have to work against your whole body weight. With your feet hip-width apart, lift your heels off the floor while keeping your toes and balls of the feet down. Hold for a full inhale and exhale and then slowly lower. Complete 15 reps.
To target different parts of the calf muscle, mix it up by completing one set with your toes pointing straight ahead, one with your toes pointing in 30-45 degrees towards one another, and one where they point out 30-45 degrees.
The next time you’re on a conference call, find an empty space along the wall and settle into a nice wall sit. Contract your core and quads as you lower your body down. Your knees should be bent to 90 degrees and your shins should be perpendicular to the ground. Hold the position as long as you can, trying not to grab onto your legs with your hands.
“The side lunge promotes stability and strength in the lateral glute muscles such as the stabilizers and the gluteus medius,” says Kovar. You’ll also work those hard-to-target inner thighs. Start by standing tall with your feet parallel and shoulder-width apart. “Take a big step to the side, ensuring your torso stays upright, and lower until the knee of your leading leg is bent at around 90 degrees, putting the weight back into your gluteal muscles,” explains Kovar. “Keep the non-moving leg straight. Push back up and return to the starting position.” Complete 12-15 reps on one leg, and then switch sides.
Squats to Reverse Lunges
“Squats and lunges are main gluteal strengtheners that target the major muscles of the leg,” says Kovar. “This exercise also promotes balance in motion.” Start by standing tall with your feet parallel and shoulder-width apart. “Perform a traditional static squat by lowering the hips down, knees near 90 degrees, and when returning to the starting position, step your right leg back into a lunge. Bend the knee toward the ground to make it more challenging and then step the foot back to the starting position,” says Kovar. “Next, perform a traditional static squat and when returning to the starting position, step your left leg back into a lunge, and on the up-phase, return back to center.” Keep alternating legs on the lunge and complete 10 reps on each leg.
This exercise works the glutes and hamstrings while challenging your balance. “With balance, the inner and outer thighs have to stabilize in order to keep the pelvis in a proper position,” notes Kovar. “Feel free to do this exercise with your own body weight, or hold onto a wall to help your balance.” Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding one or two dumbbells in front of the thighs, palms facing your body. “Keep a slight bend in your knees, and hinge forward at the waist while lifting one foot off the ground. The head and the foot work as a counterbalance for the lifted leg.” Be sure to contract your glutes during the movement to prevent lower back strain. Lower the weight towards the foot you are standing on. Then stand back up, pushing through your heel and engaging your glutes. Complete 10 reps, and then switch sides. Danclar shares some form advice: “Try to keep your back as straight at a board,” she explains. “Bend down as far as you can keep your back straight (not rounded), and then come back up to the starting position.”
Inner Thigh Static Holds
Grab something compressible and soft like an extra sweater or jacket you aren’t wearing and roll it into a ball. Sit towards the edge of your chair with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent to 90 degrees. Place the soft object between your knees. Squeeze in on the object and hold for 20-30 seconds. Release, relax, and then repeat three times.
If you don’t have a soft object, you can use one or two fists side by side with your knuckles facing forward.
Seated Lower Ab Tucks
Sit towards the edge of your chair with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent to 90 degrees. Place your hands on the sides of the chair on either side of each hip. Use your core, particularly your lower abs, to lift your lower body off the floor and tuck it upward towards your chest. Be sure to draw your legs up using your abs—your hands and arms should only provide stability, not momentum. Slowly lower, resisting the tendency for gravity to drop your legs quickly.
Standing Oblique Crunches
It’s a little challenging to target the core without getting down on the floor or rolling out a stability ball, but here’s a move you can do standing without any equipment. Stand upright your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands up behind your head with your elbows out to each side. Lean towards the right side, squeezing your oblique muscles and simultaneously lowering right elbow and raising right knee up and out to that side until they meet in the middle. Return to the starting position. Complete 15 reps and then switch sides.
Grab a weighted object. A five-pound dumbbell works great if you want to invest in a pair to stash in your desk. Otherwise, a large water bottle or heavy book should work. You’ll work your abs, obliques, shoulders, arms, back, and glutes with this powerful move. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, hold the weight straight out in front of your body with your arms parallel to the floor. Allowing the knees to assume a natural bend and the feet to pivot slightly, rotate your torso to move your outstretched arms right and left in an oscillating manner for 30 seconds. Keep your core tight and engage your obliques.
Standing Hay Balers
Kovar says this exercise increases core strength, while focusing on core mobility. Hold onto a small dumbbell, water bottle, or other weighted object and place the hands to the outside of you left hip. “Imagine you are loading your hands and then lift the arms toward the upper-right side of your body above the shoulders. Slowly, lower the arms back to the starting position,” explains Kovar. “Bend and extend the elbows, as needed, when drawing this diagonal line from 7 to 2 o'clock. Complete 10-12 reps on the left side and switch to the right, imagining the arms are moving from the 5 o'clock to 10 o'clock position.”
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