Working at a desk all day can be great for you as a person (Employment! Professional growth! Paycheck! Capitalism!), but there’s no doubt that it can wreak havoc on your body. Not only does a desk job keep you incredibly sedentary, but sitting there all day keeps your spine in a less-than-ideal position that over-activates what we call the “anterior chain” (muscles on the front of your body – think chest, shoulders, etc.) and keeps the “posterior chain” (muscles on the back of your body – hamstrings, glutes, back, etc.) stretched out, inactive, and in unhealthy positions. Add the typical work stress and the toll that takes on the body – like muscle tension in your shoulders and neck, eyestrain, headaches, etc. – and as far as your body is concerned, that desk job is pretty much a recipe for disaster.
Most folks know that all that inactivity isn’t great for your health, so lots of folks choose to hit the gym before or after work to counteract the sedentary nature of their jobs and stay healthy. The good news is that working out regularly is a fantastic habit and has all kinds of health benefits and if you can exercise a few times a week you definitely should. The bad news is that working out 4-5x a week doesn’t “undo” all the sitting you’re doing at work. Even working out 7 days a week wouldn’t be enough to counteract the 8+ hours a day many of us spend working at a desk. If you’ve ever worked a job that keeps your on your feet or is more physical, you know what I mean.
For example, I worked at Costco for one holiday season a few years ago. I didn’t – and still don’t – have a FitBit or any other kind of fitness tracker, but my phone had a built in health app that tracked steps. I kept my phone in my pocket whenever I worked, and one night when I got off work I happened to check that health app. In all the running around I did at work – running back to get products for customers, walking around putting back products customers didn’t want, bringing in carts from the parking lot, etc. – I had walked over 7 miles in one 8 hour shift. (For comparison, working as a therapist at a hospital, I average about 2 miles/day now. Not good!)
Over the next couple months I started checking my health app before and after each shift to see how “far” I had walked at work; I even started comparing that health app to the Nike Run app I used to see if it was pretty accurate (it was). Turned out I was averaging between 8 and 11 miles each shift, and on a particularly busy day I walked 14 miles scurrying up and down the aisles of Costco and through the parking lot.
(Side note: After the hundreds of carts I hauled in from the parking lot during that time, I now have very strong feelings about people who are too lazy to return their shopping cart to the proper corral. I will judge you harshly if I see you do this.)
Although it wasn’t a “physical” job in the sense that I wasn’t doing manual labor or ever feeling particularly physically challenged (unless you count biting my tongue when customers were assholes), it required me to be more active than any other job I’ve ever had…and I loved it.
Yall, I slept so damn well when I worked there. I was also working as a personal trainer at the time, as well as training for a half marathon, so during that season I was on my feet all the time and I felt like I was eating constantly just to keep from being ravenous. I’ll be the first to admit that the combination of those things – along with pretty high stress levels (applying for grad school, getting ready to move, and dating assholes) – was absolutely not giving my body what it needed to recover from half-mary training and perform its best. So most likely, it was “all of the above” that contributed to my sleeping like a damn baby.
Even so, aside from the days when I felt completely exhausted and bone-tired, my body felt fantastic and I miss that feeling these days when being a grad student and a therapist both keep me pretty much stuck at a desk! It felt great to move so much, to not be confined to a desk chair, and to enjoy tons of movement that wasn’t formal exercise. You know, sort of exactly what our bodies were made for…
Still, all this doesn’t mean you should quit your job and start spending all day 8 hours a day at the gym (or Costco). It just means that a desk job comes with some potential risks to your overall health…and the best news is that there are ways you can manage those risks! Here are some great ways to keep your body healthy even when you have to be at a desk most of the day…
Take a little walk
Some people like to eat their lunch while they work and then take a stroll during their lunch break. That’s great! For others, that’s not feasible, so taking 5 or 10 minutes to walk around several times a day works for them. Whatever works for you, do it. At the hospital, I’m lucky to be able to pretty much get up whenever I want to when I’m not with patients, and I take advantage of that my roaming the halls a few times a day. When it’s practical, you can also make a point of walking to see colleagues in the building rather than sending an email/calling. It’s old fashioned, but it works! (Bonus points if you wear a pencil skirt and channel your inner “Peggy” from Mad Men.)
Take the stairs
Taking the stairs is another great way to get in some extra movement at the office. At the same time, stairwells are not the safest places (they tend to be very isolated and provide plenty of places for concealment), so use good judgment! If it’s late in the evening and the office is cleared out, further isolating yourself in a staircase isn’t the best idea. It can be impractical if you have a lot of things you have to carry and/or you have to go up many flights of stairs. That being said, taking the stairs instead of the elevator is such an easy way to stretch your legs before/during/after sitting on your bum all day. So use the stairs if/when you can safely do so, but always be aware of your surroundings!
I’ve seen this recommendation made by optometrists – every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look away from your computer/phone screen, and instead focus on something 20 feet away or farther. It helps your eyes to keep from getting fatigued and can help prevent eye problems, headaches, and the like. It’s also a great excuse to take a little stroll and head to the water fountain, your buddy’s office, etc.
Take stretching breaks
If you can’t get out of your office to walk around, just stand up from your desk and stretch. Actually, even if you can get out and walk around, you should do this! Roll your shoulders up and down, reach your neck from side to side, stretch your arms overhead and behind your and in front of you, and shake out those wrists and then give them a stretch, too! There are lots of neat YouTube videos with quick little stretching routines made for you to do at your desk if you want to go look at those, and you can follow me on Instagram and check out my Instagram stories to see lots of examples of stretches to do from the comfort of your desk!
Alternate between standing and sitting
I’m fortunate enough to have a “smart desk” at the hospital – it can automatically adjust height and switch from a normal height to a standing desk with the push of a button. (I also have a pretty big office with a window, and a great view at that. I am very spoiled and I know it.) Standing desks are great, so if you have one, use it! But the thing is, standing in one place all day isn’t much better than sitting, and if you don’t believe me, just ask your feet after your first couple days standing for 8 hours straight. What’s best is alternating positions regularly – sitting, standing, walking, lather, rinse, repeat. A great way to do this if you don’t have a standing desk is to delegate certain tasks as “standing work” – for example, you could choose to stand while you take phone calls, and sit while you answer emails. If you need to meet with a colleague to discuss something, you can suggest taking a walk while you talk (if that’s not completely impractical) instead of sitting in an office or conference room for 20 minutes.
Get up and move around when you can
The general rule for combating a sedentary job is to take every chance you have for movement. If that means taking 3 minutes every hour to stand up, stretch, walk up and down the hall, do a few jumping jacks…do it! You might be surprised at the difference it makes. No need to stress over it or be obsessive about a certain amount of “steps,” but pay attention to how your body feels and when you’re feeling antsy/tense, get up and stretch and shake it out. Or, take a little walk, or do a few pushups, or dance, or twerk…whatever cranks your tractor.
Of course, the typical office job comes with plenty more risks to your health than just physical inactivity (think of how difficult it can be to eat healthfully at work!). Stay tuned for upcoming strategies for staying fit at the office, including specific ways to keep your nutrition on point and manage your stress levels!
PS: If you loved the suggestions here, be sure to check out my Instagram stories! I share lots of #officefitness hacks throughout the week in my insta-story. Let me know if you try any of these!