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Desk Exercises for People Who Sit All Day

We’ve talked about preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome if you earn your living by making the same movements at a computer all day long. But what about the rest of your body? Sitting all day can do bad things to your body, but desk exercises can help!

Consequences of Too Much Sitting

Using computers means sitting for many hours a day. The human body was designed to be on the move. All that daily sitting does some bad things to your body. What exactly does too much sitting do to your body?

  • Your circulation slows down, you use up less blood sugar and you burn very few calories: in short, you can gain a lot of weight. You already knew that, right?
  • Your posture suffers, which can lead to back pain, neck pain, hip pain, leg pain and headaches. You probably already noticed that, too.
  • Higher risk of heart disease, higher cholesterol, diabetes, etc. We already knew not getting enough exercise could be associated with these disorders, but it appears that sitting all day contributes independently to these risks.
  • Your risk of depression increases because movement and blood flow keep happy hormones chugging through your body. Sitting all day hinders that process.
    Desk chair in office

What About Workouts?

The bad news: working out, even an hour every single day, does not counteract these effects. Even if it keeps the weight off.

This may surprise you, but think about it: we’re not designed to move vigorously for an hour or two every day or so, then spend the rest of our time sitting around while our automated lifestyle brings nearly everything to us.

We’re designed to be constantly moving, even at home – except when we’re asleep. Sitting isn’t just not exercising: sitting is actually doing additional damage to you.

The good news: there are some fixes that really do help. I’ve been testing them recently, and while I can’t go test myself in a lab to make sure all the stuff they’re talking about has improved, I can tell you this: I’ve lost weight,  I have more energy, and my neck pain, back pain and headaches have improved tremendously.

Counteracting the metabolism slow down

To counteract what sitting all day does to your metabolism, blood circulation and brain hormones, try the following.

1. Fidget. A study from the Mayo Clinic found that people who fidget while sitting may burn up to 350 more calories a day than those who don’t tap their feet, swing their legs or otherwise keep in near-constant motion while sitting.

This was the first tip I tried, and I was stunned by the results. At first, I actually had some soreness – like you might with any exercise your body isn’t used to.

But then the fidgeting quickly became second nature, and I seem to consistently burn more calories. It’s also helpful to fidget while watching TV or doing other sitting activities in your free time.

2. Frequent breaks from sitting. If you can get up and walk around twice every hour, doing so will offset the damage of constant sitting. Read your email or take phone calls standing up (bonus points if you can pace while talking on a headset).

If you can get away with it, a few minutes of jumping jacks or running in place will do wonders for you. Every break you take from sitting, even if it’s not to do anything vigorous, will give your body a chance to work like it’s designed to work.

3. Incidental exercise. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk to shops, or park further from them. Walk at a brisk pace instead of a leisurely one. These minor bits of exercise add up.

4. Put more energy into non-exercise activities. Do more household chores, or do the ones you have with a bit more vigor. Stand up to fold clothes instead of sitting down.

Take your time vacuuming instead of rushing – that extra time of standing and being in motion. Also, activities like Wii or shooting pool help counteract the sitting effects even if they’re not particularly vigorous.

Fixing your posture to fix your pain

Even sitting with good posture and perfect desk ergonomics can cause pain and stiffness over time. You can see chiropractors, physical therapists and/or masseurs trained in body work to get relief, but what about preventing these problems in the first place?

Or preventing them from recurring once you’ve gotten that relief? The above tips won’t help with this, but we’ve got others:

A Good Chair

It’s worth investing in a chair that supports you ergonomically. The right chair will let you work more hours in comfort than the wrong one. The WorkPro Quantum 9000 has been a great choice for me.


Take a few minutes at least once an hour to do some stretches. Check out these stretches (here and here) from a 1977 article [via DumbLittleMan], which are tried and true. No. 15 is one of the most important – the one where you lock your hands behind you and press your arms upward to feel the stretch on the front of your shoulders, under your collarbone.

Sitting at a desk makes us tend to collapse our posture forward, and those muscles can get tight. That in turn makes it harder to maintain good posture. This exercise helps correct that.

Butt crunches

You can do as many butt crunches as you like while sitting. This keeps your blood flowing, helps with posture and reduces the tightening effect sitting has on the hip muscles.

Abdomen exercises

Just squeezing your abdomen muscles and holding them for a few seconds at a time is a real exercise – honest! It seems too easy, but it strengthens both abdomen and back muscles to help strengthen the muscles that keep good posture comfortable.