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Two people sitting at a desk doing a workout with supplements

Breaktime Desk Workout: Quick Exercises for Desk Jobs

These days, many people have jobs that require them to sit at a desk for extended periods. While some workplaces have hopped on the standing-desk bandwagon, and others have adopted other ergonomic means (think special chairs or yoga balls), many people are still sitting in a regular, old desk chair.

While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that sitting is taking hours off our lives like one of our favourite characters from “The Office, it is indeed causing various problems that affect our overall quality of life.

Person sitting in chair at desk typing on computer with correct posture

From posture to the position of our pelvises, many areas are affected and changed over time, leading to pain and decreased mobility, among other things. Unfortunately, even if you think you’re counteracting the negative effects of sitting all day when you go to the gym and lift weights for an hour, you might not be addressing the real problem.

So, we put together a workout to address the specific issues we see due to our sitting culture. What’s more, is that these are quick exercises you can do with little to no equipment while you take a quick break at (or near) your desk. It’s our desk workout!

Common Problems Resulting from Sitting to Address in a Desk Workout

As with many things, sitting is not inherently bad. However, sitting in the same position for several hours a day leads to our muscles and bone structures making compensations—and not in a good way! Several common symptoms result from sitting so much. They are:

Forward Head Posture

Forward head posture or the forward head position is defined as holding the head out—instead of falling in its natural position over the cervical spine, the head is forward. Typically, people that hold their noggins in the FHP also tilt their heads back to compensate for looking forward.

While everyone occasionally moves their head to this forward position, over time, it causes strain on the bones and muscles in the neck. As muscles are held in unnatural positions, an imbalance can develop, making it harder to hold your head in the natural position.

Dowager’s Hump

As the head is held in this unnatural forward position, a hump of fatty tissue can form at the base of the neck. This hump occurs slowly, over a long period, resulting from the long-term weakening of the muscles known as thoracic extensors and forward head posture. 

Thoracic Kyphosis

person slouching at desk

Thoracic kyphosis and forward head posture tend to go hand-in-hand. It is the forward rounding of the shoulders and is also a result of the forward-facing, hunched, sitting position that is so prevalent.

As with FHP and the Dowager’s hump, thoracic kyphosis isn’t aesthetically ideal, but more than that, it can cause mild to severe back pain and less-than-optimal breathing. Thoracic kyphosis also makes you appear shorter than you really are.

Sore Low Back and Weak Core

Most people incorrectly equate the rectus abdominis—the muscles that make up a visible six-pack—are the core in its entirety. In reality, the core is a complex network of muscles that work together to stabilize and support the abdomen.

The muscles include:

  • the pelvic floor
  • transversus abdominis
  • internal and external obliques
  • multifidus
  • rectus abdominis
  • latissimus dorsi
  • erector spinae
  • the diaphragm
woman doing exercises at desk using chair

A sore back, especially in the lower half, is a common complaint that we can trace back to sitting. However, it’s not just the simple act of sitting in a desk chair that makes your back hurt. Initially, the stiffness and minor pain can be attributed to decreased blood flow and reduced movement, but after time, relying on the desk chair to support your body leads to gradual and sometimes significant core weakness and dysfunction. The cyclical process here leads to more and more back pain and is likely one of the main reasons you’re looking for quick exercises to offset the damage done by sitting. 

Shortened Hip Flexors

In addition to the muscles listed above that comprise the core, an equally important secondary group of muscles affect core strength and are similarly adversely affected by our sitting culture.

These muscles include:

  • psoas
  • pectineus
  • sartorius
  • iliacus
  • adductors
  • the quadriceps, but mainly rectus femoris
  • the glutes, including the gluteus medius, maximus, and minimus 
woman stretching hands behind back doing exercises at her desk

In the same way that prolonged sitting weakens the core, it weakens these secondary muscles. Interestingly, when we try to use “good” posture when sitting in a desk chair, we often push forward through the lower and mid-spine, tilting the pelvis. This might temporarily relieve the pain and even provide a pleasant stretch to the lower and mid-back. The problem is that sitting in this position too often is an over-correction and can lead to more muscle imbalances—most notably the shortening of the psoas muscles. These and other muscles can cause and an anterior pelvic tilt.

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

When we’re frequently sitting and standing with our pelvis in the anterior position, the muscles eventually adapt, causing the pelvis to remain in a tilt. In addition, this position causes the natural curvature of the spine to move up in the mid-back.

Aesthetically speaking, when your “natural” posture includes an anterior tilt and a high hinge point of the spine, it can make it appear as if you have a more prominent belly pouch. This is because this position keeps the abdominal muscles and hamstrings in a permanently stretched position.

All these things add up to misalignment, which can cause significant pain and contribute to injuries.

A Desk Workout to Address Each Problem

So, you might realize by now that prolonged sitting can cause various problems that lead to more problems, and those problems lead to additional problems.

woman stretching leg and foot as desk

What you might be wondering now, though, is how to fix and prevent further damage and discomfort. Well, luckily, you’ve found us, and we’ve put together this comprehensive desk workout that includes quick exercises to address each problem area. In addition, this desk workout also includes extra credit—more quick exercises to help correct posture, relieve pain, and prevent reoccurrences.

In addition to feeling better after utilizing the quick exercises in our desk workout, research shows that taking frequent breaks from sitting throughout the day can make a big difference, so don’t be afraid to do the stretching bits more than once per day!

Perform each stretch or exercise in the desk workout for 30 to 60 seconds, gradually increasing to two or three sets. 

Strengthen and Stretch the Deep Muscles in the Neck

This quick exercise is designed to target: Forward head posture, thoracic kyphosis, and Dowager’s hump.

Lie flat on your back on a flat surface. Tuck your chin so that you form a great double chin. Don’t worry about the way it looks. Initially, when you first start incorporating the desk workout, this will feel strange and difficult.
If you’re experiencing anything that this quick exercise is designed to target, natural compensation will include rounding the shoulders forward and sticking the ribs up. Do your best to bring attention to these areas, correct them, and relax. It will feel difficult. Over time, this compensation will occur less and less.

Stretch and Open the Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps

person clasping fingertips together behind back stretching

This quick exercise is designed to target: Thoracic kyphosis

Perform this stretch one of two ways:

  • on the floor
  • against the wall

Get in a prone position with your forehead and chest on the wall or floor. Bring your arms to a T, straight out from the shoulders. The hands should remain in a prone position while you slowly rotate onto your right shoulder.

If you’re lying down, give your torso some help with the stretch by placing your left leg across your right so that the hips can move and you can stretch to your desired depth.

If you’re standing, feel free to drop the arm that isn’t being stretched. If you need more of a stretch for either position, bend the right arm to approximately 90 degrees.

Switch, and perform on the opposite shoulder.

person stretching against wall in home

Next, stand straight up and away from the wall. Clasp your hands behind your back and feel the stretch across your chest and shoulders. For more, gently lean forward and allow the arms to drop further forward.

Finally, find child’s pose. Sit on your knees. You can choose a wide-legged position or not, whichever is most comfortable. Place your hands on the floor in front of you and slide forward so your chest is resting on your thighs (or the space between) and your forehead is resting on the floor.

You should feel this stretch in the chest and triceps mostly. For more, allow the arms to bend at the elbow and raise them to a praying position behind your head.

Strengthen Traps

This quick exercise is designed to target: Thoracic kyphosis, forward head posture, and overall posture

One of the main proponents of improving posture is strengthening the trapezius muscles. To do this quick exercise in a desk workout, you’ll be performing a shoulder blade squeeze.

Stand or sit with your best posture, careful not to tilt too far on the pelvis. Slowly bring your shoulders back by squeezing the shoulder blades together. Imagine holding a pen between the shoulder blades. Hold this squeeze for 5-10 seconds, then slowly and with control, relax into your starting position.

Repeat this movement for the duration of the exercise, whether 30 or 60 seconds.

Cat Cow

This quick exercise is designed to target: Weak core and pelvic tilt

person practicing cat cow pose at home in front of laptop

Begin by getting into a tabletop position, careful to keep a flat back with a neutral pelvis. Inhale deeply as you allow your chest to drop and the pelvis to tilt back.

With a powerful exhale, lift your pelvic floor, begin squeezing the abs from bottom to top, and curve the spine as your pelvis tilts in the other direction. Push on the floor, feeling your shoulder blades spreading along the back. Repeat with cow pose on the inhale.

Perform the cat cow rotation for 30-60 seconds. As a bonus, the breathing exercise should help you to feel less stressed!

Bird Dog

This quick exercise is designed to target: Weak core and pelvic tilt

Beginning in the same tabletop position you were just in, alternate raising opposite arm and leg, one direction at a time. The goal is to keep your torso parallel to the floor with as little movement as you can manage. Raise the arms and legs so that if someone were to look at you from the side, you would be in a perfect line from your fingertip to heel.

Avoid tilting the pelvis to get your leg in position and focus on keeping your abdomen tight. 

Hip Flexor Stretches

This quick exercise is designed to target: Low back pain and anterior pelvic tilt

Grab a pillow, jacket, or other soft material to place under your knees. From standing on your knees, step the right foot forward, bending the knee at 90 degrees (think traditional marriage proposal position). From here, keeping the hips even, lean forward. You should feel a stretch in the hip flexor area of the left leg. Hold for thirty seconds.

Instead of releasing at the end of this stretch, we deepen it by raising the left foot towards the booty and reaching back with our left hand to grab the foot. Pull the foot in towards the glute as much as you can without discomfort. This stretch is getting deeper into the hip flexor by reaching the rectus femoris.

Now repeat the two stretches with the other leg.

Spine Stretch

This quick exercise is designed to target: Low back pain

person doing exercises to stretch spine

This stretch is easy compared to the last one. Lie flat on your back and bring your knees into your chest. After gently squeezing, allow both knees to fall off to one side of your body. To complete the twist, turn your head in the opposite direction of your knees.

Rest here for 30-60 seconds before switching sides.

That does it for your desk workout with movements to help relieve pain and target the root issues for the discomfort! Using this desk workout to break up your sitting several times throughout the day should:

  • significantly reduce pain and discomfort
  • begin to build the appropriate strength to correct your posture
  • bring awareness to problem areas

However, it is unlikely that this desk workout alone will be enough to correct your posture, and therefore we recommend doing the following stretches and exercises for extra credit! In addition to these, you could contact a certified personal trainer or create a workout plan focused on correcting these issues.

Extra Credit: Quick Exercises and Stretches to Build on the Desk Workout

Foam Roll to Release—Chest, Shoulders, Lats, Quads, Glutes

This quick exercise is designed to target: Thoracic kyphosis, forward head posture, and pelvic tilt

Weighted Rows

This quick exercise is designed to target: Thoracic kyphosis, forward head posture, and overall posture

Dead Bug

This quick exercise is designed to target: Weak lower abs and pelvic tilt

Plank

This quick exercise is designed to target: Weak core and pelvic tilt

Hip Bridge or Thrust

This quick exercise is designed to target: Weak core, pelvic tilt, and shortened hip flexors

Pigeon

This quick exercise is designed to target: Glutes, hip flexors, and quads

Lizard

This quick exercise is designed to target: Hip flexors

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