Working Out Isn’t Enough: Advice for Desk Workers

You might exercise every day, but if you work long hours at a desk you have a lot of sitting to undo. Here’s how to overcome this common challenge.

A recent survey found that the number one complaint among desk workers was lack of physical activity. Over half of the workers noted this disadvantage. The primary complaint among non-desk workers was exhaustion from being on their feet all day. Ironic, right?

Perhaps it’s true that the grass is always greener on the other side, but working at a desk all day does have some serious side effects on our bodies. Working a desk job means more time spent indoors, less time spent moving, and too much time spent in hunched-over typing positions that contribute to a number of health issues.

Workouts Aren’t Enough

In fact, it might sound dramatic, but the time you spend sitting in a desk is also undermining your workout time, as noted in coach Jeff Kuhland’s article, How You’re Sabotaging Your Posture and Your Time in the Gym:

You work out for an hour at the gym, then shower, eat, and head to work. You’ve passed the sixty-minute threshold so your body has absorbed a majority of the nutrients it’s going to from your meal. It starts to regenerate and heal. If you have poor posture with shoulders forward, a curve in your spine, and collapsed hips, your body is literally healing the micro-tears and micro-trauma into this poor position. You are actually healing in a shortened muscular state that remains static, slowly solidifying the new connections your body is making.

That’s right – even if you work out religiously it might still not be quite enough to undo the hours you spend on Facebook and YouTube. Author Doug Dupont summarized a 2013 study in his article Sitting at Your Desk Is Eating Your Muscles. The study found sedentary workers who exercised were at just as high risk for health issues as those who didn’t exercise regularly. For the desk worker, what’s much more crucial than intermittent exercise is regular movement, which prevents muscle breakdown.

The review mentions that standing alone creates enough of a stimulus to prevent catabolism. They recommend five minutes of standing for every thirty minutes of sitting. My own recommendations are to stretch while you do this. It may look silly, but get over it. It’s important, and your health is worth a comment or two. People might even join in when you mention you are working to prevent back pain and death. I don’t want back pain or death, coworker, do you? Then you best be stretching your hip flexors.

Not only do frequent work breaks help get some movement in during an otherwise long day at the desk, but they also increase productivity, as noted in coach Amy Hester’s article, 11 Sneaky Ways to Move Every Day. Amy recommends setting an alarm clock to help keep you moving throughout a long day of sitting. “Depending on your office atmosphere, you can get up and walk the hallways or do a plank under your desk. My office is secluded enough that I practice my handstands on my exercise break.” Hey, why not?

Sitting and Injury Risk

Working long hours at a desk can also increase your risk of injuries. For example, typing is known to contribute to internal rotation of the shoulders, which can contribute to shoulder impingement. Mobility expert Brooke Thomas sums up the effects of typing In her article, The Thing You Do Everyday That’s Setting You Up For Shoulder Injuries:

A shortened pec minor, the little guy who sits deep to its better known neighbor pec major, will rotate your scapula forward and down, giving you that slumped shoulder look that you like so much. If you add to that taking the humerus (upper arm bone) into internal rotation while you type, then over time the humerus starts to live more comfortably at the front lip of the glenohumeral joint. Once it is subtly displaced this way, it closes down the subacromial space even more, which means the supraspinatus and biceps tendons have less room to breathe and can wind up getting pinched every time you lift your arm. This sensation is what is commonly called a shoulder impingement. Do it enough and it’s like dropping a cinder block on a garden hose – it’s not subtle anymore.

To combat this effect, Brooke recommends the following exercise. I can say from personal experience that you want to know this exercise by heart and do it frequently throughout the day if you work at a computer:

Back to Basics

Don’t get me wrong, going to the gym regularly and following a training program are worthy and valuable to health. But there’s no way to get around it – sitting for hours on end is problematic, and an hour a day at the gym isn’t going to fix it. To counteract regular sitting, you need to get back to basics.

How do you do that? One starting point is to dramatically increase your time spent walking each day. The term “sedentary” is defined by the amount of time you spend walking each day, and people in developed countries do far less of it than people of many other cultures, as noted in my article, Walking: The Most Underrated Movement of the 21st Century:

In 2003 a study of over a thousand Americans measured how much the average adult walks over a 24-hour period. The study found that the average number of daily steps was 5,340 for men and 4,793 for women. The technical definition of ‘sedentary’ is less than 5,000 steps per day. Compare that to the Australians, who walk a near-ideal average of 9,695 steps per day, or to the Amish farming communities, where the average number of steps is 18,000 for men and 14,000 for women.

Take walks throughout the day to keep your blood flowing and reap the mental benefits of walking. I find regular walks also keep my mind active and improve my focus during a long work day.

Another fundamental that’s easy to work on is desk posture. Don’t forget your neck, shoulders, and arms are a critical part of good posture habits, and all of them are affected by desk posture. Yoga instructor Jon Kolaska gives a simple and easy-to-implement posture hack in this video:

Beyond the Office

Adding more movement into your life doesn’t have to stop at the office. If you’re a desk worker who sits for the majority of your life, you need all the movement you can get. Amy outlined several opportunities that arise outside of the office to get in some extra movement, including stretching during a movie, doing wall sits while you brush your teeth, or doing five burpees every time someone dies during Game of Thrones.

Alignment expert Katy Bowman also provided six tips to integrate movement into your day in her article, This Year, Exercise Less:

  1. Wear minimal shoes. Build a standing (or sitting-differently) workstation.
  2. Go furniture free(ish).
  3. Walk short distances instead of drive.
  4. Get a Squatty Potty.
  5. Carry your kids or groceries.

Need even more inspiration? Here’s a sample workout posted by coach Winslow Jenkins that I enjoy doing throughout the day to break up the monotony of being on my bum and staring at a screen:

Today’s Fun: once every 90 minutes for 3-5 rounds:

  • Max reps double kettlebell front squats
  • Max reps pullups
  • Max reps pushups
  • 1km run

 I spend a lot of time at a desk myself, so I would love to know – do you work a desk job, and if so, how do you stay active during the day?

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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