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a woman stretches at her desk

Brooke Lombardi, a receptionist in Macomb, Mich., is tired of her work. She doesn’t mean she is sick of her actual job (although it probably has its moments). Rather, she’s describing how she always feels at the end of her eight-hour day: weary, achy, and physically wiped out.

She’s definitely not alone. Every day, millions of people in the workforce make the painful discovery that long sedentary periods can actually be hazardous to your health. Humans simply were not built to work at a desk for 40-plus hours a week, month after month.

When you sit that much your muscles get tight, and your blood doesn’t flow as freely. Hunching over a computer can also make your shoulders, neck, and back feel like they’re being squeezed in a vise. It’s no wonder we tend to feel so beat up by the time the five o’clock whistle blows.

But you don’t have to take it, er, sitting down. OK, so maybe you don’t have a fully equipped gym in your office building. That doesn’t mean you can’t still work out the kinks and shake off built-up stress. All you need is your own body weight and the source of your discomfort: your office space.

Of course, even the most comprehensive office workout should never replace your usual lift, sweat, and repeat routine. Think of these mini-exercises as a way to keep your fitness momentum going — until you can get going for real.

Deskbound Drills

Since sitting still for long periods tends to tighten your muscles, the most effective deskbound drills involve seated and standing stretches. You can actually improve flexibility in an office environment without working up a sweat. (Try these two mobility exercises at or next to your desk to balance out the effects of sitting.)

Complete a full circuit of the following flexibility drills as regularly as you can, ideally three or more times a day. Do you have particular hot spots, such as your lower back or wrists? Don’t wait until you’re in pain; instead, add regular stretch breaks throughout your schedule. Just one caution: If you’re using a rolling chair, make sure its wheels are locked or that the chair is stabilized.


Although you won’t make the kind of strength gains in the office that you can at the gym, some daily flexing can keep your muscles toned and ready for action. Use your own body weight and a few simple variations of pushups and dips to work your shoulders, biceps, and triceps. For your legs, back, and abs, a few isometric exercises and light calisthenics can keep your blood flowing and remind your muscles what they were built for — flexing, not filing.


a woman performs a bicep curl and tricep dip on her chair

  • Biceps: Sit upright and toward the front half of your chair. Pretend you’re holding a dumbbell in your left hand and place your left elbow on the front edge of an armrest. Tense your biceps as much as possible by tightly clenching your fist. Slowly lower the imaginary dumbbell until your elbow has extended slightly more than 90 degrees, and then raise it slowly toward your shoulder. Repeat the movement 12 times and then switch arms
  • Triceps: Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair and place your hands next to your hips. Move your hips out in front of the chair, supporting yourself on outstretched arms. Bend your elbows, lowering your body until your elbows are bent to 90 degrees. Straighten your arms, raising your body, and repeat the movement 12 times.


how to strengthen your chest muscles at work

  1. Place both hands on your desk and walk your feet back until your body is at about a 45-degree angle to the floor, with your arms outstretched to support your weight with your hands. Keep your belly tight and spine erect as you slowly bend your elbows until your chest almost touches the edge of the desk. Push against the desk, raising your body back to the starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
  2. Sit tall in a healthy posture. Spread your arms wide, gripping the edge of your desk with your hands as if you’re about to pick up the desk. Now push the desk with all your might, as if trying to bring your hands together. Hold the maximum exertion for about 30 seconds; your arms may tremble and your forehead may break a mild sweat. Repeat two to four times.


strengthen shoulders at desk

  1. Sit tall in a healthy posture with your belly tight and spine erect, feet flat on the floor. Extend your elbows, arms in plane with your shoulders (as if you had wings), palms down. While keeping your right arm extended, lower your left arm slowly until your forearm almost touches the armrest of your chair, and then raise the arm again until your hands are in line with your shoulders. While holding your left arm outstretched, repeat with the right. Continue switching until you have completed eight to 10 repetitions with each arm. Perform three sets.
  2. Lean forward at the edge of your seat while keeping your spine straight. Make fists with both hands. Flex your elbows to 90 degrees, fists tucked into your chest. Slowly bring your elbows back, fists tracing their trajectory, as you bring your shoulder blades together. Tighten your grip and pinch your shoulder blades behind you. Hold for 10 seconds. Then slowly bring your elbows back to the starting position without releasing the tension. Repeat the movement eight to 10 times.


a woman strengthens her back

  1. Sit back in your chair with your spine against the backrest. With your hands gripping the front of the armrests, press your upper back against the back of the chair, as if trying to lean back against a rigid surface. Contract your erector spinae (the muscles used to arch your back), keeping your feet flat on the floor, and hold the position for 20 seconds. Repeat three times.
  2. Stand with your arms straight down at your sides with a large book cradled in your left hand. Slowly lean toward the right, keeping your shoulders in plane with your hips, bringing the tips of your right fingers toward your right knee, as you raise the phone book in your left hand. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat 10 times. Then hold the phone book in your right hand and repeat the exercise on the opposite side.


leg moves from a chair

  1. Sit at the front edge of your chair, feet flat on the floor, heels slightly back, as if you were about to get up. Lean forward with your spine slightly flexed, and lift your buttocks off the chair about 6 to 12 inches. Hold this position for 10 seconds and then stand all the way up. Return to your sitting position and repeat the movement three times.
  2. Sit at the front edge of your chair, feet flat on the floor, abs tight, spine erect. Hold on to your armrests and then extend your right leg straight out, parallel with the floor. Hold for five seconds and then bend your knee to bring the right heel toward the floor, but don’t let it touch. Repeat the leg extension movement 10 times and then switch to the left leg.


a core exercise that you can do in a chair

  1. Sit in your chair with your buttocks and lower back pressed firmly against the backrest and your upper back slightly forward, feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on the armrests and then lift your legs and bring your knees into your chest. Squeeze your abdominals and then extend your legs straight out without resting your feet on the floor. Bring your knees back into your chest and repeat the movement 10 to 20 times. Complete three sets.
  2. Sit on the edge of your chair, your hands at your ears, elbows toward both sides and slightly forward. Bring your right knee toward your left elbow, while twisting your body to the right as you lift your right leg. Lower your leg and return to the starting position and then repeat the movement to your left side, as if doing bicycle crunches. Complete 15 to 20 cycles.


Head and Neck

a woman stretches her neck

  1. Sit tall in a healthy posture with your belly tight and spine erect, feet flat on the floor. Slowly roll your head in a counterclockwise motion, making two full circles. Then reverse direction and repeat two more complete circles.
  2. Tilt your head toward the left and, using your left hand, gently pull your head toward your shoulder, so you feel a good stretch on the right side of your neck. Repeat on the opposite side.
  3. Tilt your head slightly forward and clasp your hands behind your head. Gently pull your head forward — but not so much that your chin touches your chest — until you feel a stretch along the vertebrae.

Fingers and Wrists

a woman stretches her wrists

  1. Sit at the edge of your chair, leaning forward slightly, spine straight. Place your hands on the seat at either side of your thighs with the palms of your hands flat, fingers pointing back, thumb to the outside, elbows straight, but not locked. Slowly lean back, gently stretching your wrists, fingers and forearms. If the stretch feels too intense, don’t lean back quite so far. Hold for up to 20 seconds. Relax and then repeat.
  2. Hold your hands out in front of your chest, palms facing forward. Separate and extend your fingers while pushing an imaginary wall. Hold your arms fully extended, fingers wide and palms flat, for 20 seconds. Relax and then shake out your hands.


shoulder stretches you can do at your desk

  1. Assume a healthy sitting posture. Interlace your fingers and reach your arms out in front of your chest, palms pointing outward. With your fingers still clasped, reach your arms straight above your head. Inhale as you lengthen your spine and pull your arms gently behind the plane of your head.
  2. Release your fingers and bring both arms down, then reach out to either side and raise your arms until they’re at shoulder height. Reach out with both hands as if trying to touch opposite walls. As you inhale, rotate your arms counterclockwise 10 times, and then 10 times clockwise as you exhale.
  3. Reach behind your back with your right hand and grasp the left armrest of your chair. Relax your head toward your left shoulder and hold this position for 20 seconds. You’ll feel a good stretch in your right shoulder. Repeat the movement using your left hand to grasp the right armrest. (Go to “STRONG BODY, STRONG MIND: 3 Moves to Release Shoulder Tension” to see a three-part, do-anywhere stretching routine for soothing shoulder pain.)


a woman performs back stretches in her desk chair

  1. Assume a healthy sitting position. Interlace your fingers behind your head, elbows straight out to the side. As you inhale, arch your back slightly and pull your shoulder blades together drawing your elbows back. Keep your chin up, hold this position for five to 10 seconds and then exhale.
  2. Lean forward in your seat so your torso comes between your legs as far as possible. Relax your arms toward the floor, letting your head and shoulders hang, decompressing your spine. Hold this position for 30 seconds.
  3. Sit upright again. Place both hands on the right armrest and turn your head toward the right, as if looking over your shoulder. Pulling with your left hand and pushing with your right, gently twist your spine while keeping your knees and hips facing forward. Inhale and lengthen your spine as you deepen the twist. Hold for 10 seconds, then repeat the twist toward the left side.


a woman stretches her legs

  1. Sit in a healthy posture. Lift your right leg and interlace your fingers just below the knee. Gently pull your knee toward your chest. Hold for 10 seconds and then release. Repeat the stretch with your left leg.
  2. Stand about 2 feet away from your desk, belly tight, and spine erect. Place the ball of your right foot on the edge of your desk with your knee bent. Lean forward, gently stretching your hips, calf, and ankle. Repeat the movement with your left leg.

(Try these four lower-body stretches if you’ve been sitting all day.)

This article originally appeared as “Flex Time” in the March 2005 issue of Experience Life.

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