Let me guess. Your job involves sitting all day behind a computer. Now that we’re decades deep into the digital age, sitting has become the new workplace hazard. And, with more people working from home than ever, the pains of sitting have only become worse.
Do you ever finish a work day with back, hip, or neck pain? Overall stiffness? All of the above?
In this article, I’ll show you how to counteract sitting all day with the help of 5 simple exercises.
How to Counter the Effects of Sitting All Day with Exercise
When we remain in the same position for several hours a day, it’s not uncommon for muscles to become stiff, tight, or over elongated. This can all lead to pain and discomfort.
To counter and correct these effects, the National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM) lays out a helpful approach using the Corrective Exercise Continuum:
- Inhibit (relax) overactive muscles: This often involves self-massage tools or a foam roller.
- Lengthen (stretch) tight muscles: This helps calm muscles down, and improves range of motion.
- Activate underactive muscles: This involves targeted exercises to increase strength in a particular muscle.
- Integrate with multi-joint movements: Once we’ve calmed the muscles down, and done targeted strengthening, we want to incorporate them into more functional daily movement patterns.
This article primarily addresses step 3, and is focused on activating muscles that are often underutilized when we sit at a desk all day.
I’ll address both stretching and self-massage in a later article.
5 Exercises to Counter Sitting All Day and Activate Underused Muscles
A couple of these exercises do require resistance bands. If you don’t have a good set of resistance bands, they can be a great building block for home workouts. For today’s exercises we will be using a long flat resistance band, and a loop band, as shown below.
You can do these exercises all together at once, or simply take mini-breaks throughout the day to perform individual sets.
1) Shoulder Ws
When we sit at a computer, it’s common for our shoulders to roll forward, especially as we lean into our work. For example, check your posture right now. Does your neck stick forward toward the screen? Are your shoulders rounding forward, leaning you into a hunch?
As our shoulders come forward, the muscles in our chest shorten, and the muscles on our back elongate, causing pain and discomfort.
This goal of this first exercise is to engage the under-activate muscles in your back, and help reset your posture. You can do it at your desk, or standing up.
- Hold the ends of an elastic resistance band in each hand, palms up, elbows at your side.
- Stand up tall, with good posture, shoulders back and down.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull the band apart.
- Your arms should create the shape of a W as they pull apart.
- Pause briefly to squeeze the shoulder blades.
- Control the motion as your hands come back forward, and repeat.
If you don’t have a resistance band, this exercise can still be helpful for resetting your posture. Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together, and opening the chest.
I recommend doing this periodically throughout the day, 3-4 times for about 10-12 repetitions.
As we sit at our desks for long periods, we often slump into our chairs as our core collapses. Fortunately, the back of our chairs keep us from falling backward, but as the core collapses, we also tend to hunch forward.
Even when sitting the core is important for maintaining good posture, and preventing pain in the upper and lower back. Deadbugs are a good exercise to help engage and strengthen that core, which is often underutilized when we sit all day.
- Start by laying flat on the floor preferably with a yoga mat.
- Raise your legs up with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Raise your arms straight up. This is your starting position, which resembles a dead bug.
- Engage your core, pulling your lower back to touch the floor.
- Extend your left leg, and your right arm at the same time, then come back to center.
- Repeat with the opposing side.
You can start by doing this exercise for 30 seconds, and then work up to 1 minute. 2-3 sets are a good target.
3) Glute Bridges
The gluteus Maximus (AKA – the big butt muscle) is the largest muscle in the body, but if you remain seated for a prolonged period of time, that big butt muscle can become inactive or weak.
Weak glutes are bad news because they help us to walk up stairs, and keep your trunk upright. Weak glutes can also contribute to back, hip and knee pain.
Glute bridges are one of the most effective ways to get your glutes activated. Here’s how to do them:
- Start by laying on your back, with your knees bent, and feet planted on the ground near your butt. Lay your hands palms down.
- Engage your core by pulling you belly toward your spine. This will also help pull you low back flat against the floor.
- Squeeze your butt, as you push your hips toward the sky, lifting them off the floor.
- At the top of the movement, squeeze your butt cheeks, which should give you an extra inch or so of elevation.
- Slowly lower your hips back to the floor.
- BEWARE OF DOGS!
I recommend doing 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions.
As you increase strength you can attempt more challenging variations, like the marching glute bridge (shown below), and the single leg bridge.
4) Clam Shells
We already challenged the glutes with the bridge move, but for this exercise we’re going to focus on a smaller butt muscle, called the gluteus medius. This muscle sits at the outer surface of your hips, and helps to stabilize the pelvis as you walk, hike or run.
A weak gluteus medius is a common cause for knee pain in runners. Needless to say, sitting at a desk does not involve much action from this muscle.
One of the best exercises for strengthening this muscle is the clam shell.
- Lie on your side, with your hips stacked evenly, and knees bent at 45 degrees
- You can rest your head on top of your lower arm, and place your upper arm on your upper hip.
- Pull your belly button in to help engage your abdominal muscles and stabilize your pelvis.
- Keep your feet together as you raise your upper knee, without rotating your upper pelvis backward.
- Lower your upper leg back down, and repeat.
For this exercise, I recommend using a loop band to add resistance, and aiming for 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. As you gain strength, you can increase the resistance or number of repetitions.
What did we do before we had chairs everywhere? We squatted. We did it when socializing, we did it when eating, and we did it when… going to the bathroom. In many cultures, squatting is still a normal part of daily life.
But, in western society, we’ve essentially engineered squatting out of our daily routine. We then of course re-engineered it back into our bathroom routines with the invention of the squatty potty.
Clearly, the squat is an important movement to be able to perform, yet few people know how to do it correctly. Here are a few steps to get you back on track, and keeping those muscles moving through their full range of motion.
- Stand upright with good posture, shoulders back and down, core slightly engaged.
- Feet should be placed about shoulder width apart, with your toes slightly turned outward.
- Push your butt back, bending at the hips as you bend your knees to lower.
- As you lower, keep your heels from lifting off the floor. (Tip: Pretend you are standing on a piece of paper and trying to pull it apart with your feet)
- Come down to a comfortable depth, without letting your knees go past your toes.
- Stand back up, driving through your heels, and squeeze your butt at the top of the motion.
I recommend doing 10-15 of these, for about 2-3 sets. If you notice any discomfort or pain in your knees, discontinue. For more information on proper squat technique, this article form Nerd Fitness has a nice walkthrough.
Lastly, Take a Walk
I previously talked about the benefits of walking. Fact is our bodies weren’t made to sit for 6, 8, 10 hours straight. This creates a challenge, because our work situations often feel like they were made for that.
Breaking our sitting habit is a challenge, especially when it feels like it’s the accepted norm. But, sitting for 8 or more hours per day does increase our health risks.
Fortunately, walking can start with just 5 minutes at a time. A study on sedentary workers actually found that workers who walked for a total of 30 minutes throughout their day, split up into 5 minute bouts, reported greater happiness, less fatigue, and less food cravings than workers who walked for 30 minutes all at once.
Try it. See how you feel.
Or is it raining? Try 5 minutes of the above exercises. Walk in place. Jump rope. I even have a friend who recently took up the hula hoop. Whatever you do, just try to stand up and have fun moving for 5 minutes. I’m giving you permission to act like a child.
Personally I know that I experience the most pain on days where I sit the most, and move the least.
More Ideas for Working Out at Work
The following video is from one of my favorite health writers, James Hamblin, on Working out at Work. Enjoy!
Note: In addition to the exercises outlined above, stretching and self-massage are important if you sit at a desk for a long period of time. For more information on that, stay tuned for a future article on both stretching, and self-massage.