Sitting has been called the new smoking, with the average U.S. adult spending upwards of eight hours a day seated, a lifestyle linked to weight gain and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. We discuss some of the best ways to exercise at the office, especially if you’re suffering from a chronic pain condition.
Why is exercise at the office so important?
For the millions of U.S. adults working in offices, it can be difficult to reduce the number of hours spent seated. Meanwhile, three out of four workers at large companies pine for less time spent in their chairs, according to JustStand.org. Sixty percent of employees think standing at work would increase productivity.
Even if you can’t stand while working, taking breaks to get the blood flowing is critical for productivity, mental health, and physical fitness. Scientists recently uncovered a formula for maximum productivity that also dovetails with doctors’ recommendations for movement: work for 52 minutes and break for 17.
Incorporating exercise at the office is particularly important for pain patients, for whom movement helps reduce discomfort. Building movement into the day is also integral to keeping a trim waistline, another important consideration for minimizing pain.
Fortunately there are easy ways to incorporate movement throughout the day to get blood flowing.
1. Start the day right
Commuting often represents a big chunk of time spent seated. If you live close to work, is it possible for you to walk or bike to the office? Commuters taking public transportation might exit the bus or train early and walk a few extra blocks.
If a car is the only option for you, consider parking a little further away from work to increase the number of steps taken. Every step counts.
2. Walk instead of email in the office
Email has taken over in-office communications, with people often sending messages through cyberspace instead of walking down the hall. Buck the trend and take a walk to see the person you need to talk with. You’ll build better work relationships and exercise at the same time. For bonus points, continue standing while speaking with the colleague, as opposed to plopping down in an extra chair.
3. Take the stairs
If you work in a multi-story building, try taking the stairs instead of using the elevator. Even if you work 15 floors up, you might consider taking the stairs for part of the way and the elevator for the remainder.
4. Stand up to talk
You might not have a standing desk, but that doesn’t mean you’re trapped in a chair all day. Try standing while talking on the phone. You could even purchase dictation software and type documents or messages while standing up. Some people find they think more creatively while on their feet. And if a visitor comes to your office, you might stand up to join them while talking.
5. Move at meetings
Opportunities to stand may come up in meetings too. Arrive a little early? Stand up while looking through your notes instead of sitting. If the coworkers are game, try conducting the whole meeting while standing up.
Another option is to take the entire meeting on the road. Some famously imaginative minds favor walking meetings, including the late Steve Jobs. Walking has been found to increase creativity by 60%, according to research from Stanford University. Suggest a walking meeting to the boss, or schedule one if you happen to be the meeting organizer.
Also consider that many offices have multiple printers. An easy way to sneak in more exercise at the office is to print documents on one far away. For extra fun, use the printer near a friendly coworker and take an extra moment to catch up, while standing of course.
6. Walk breaks
For many office workers, there’s no rule that says you have to stay inside all day. You may have more freedom than you think to step outside for a moment and take a brief walk, even if it’s around the parking lot. Breathing in fresh air and moving around for even a five minutes could help you refocus and give your muscles a much needed stretch.
7. Integrate fitness into the day
Lunchtime provides time for a quick exercise session, particularly if you have a gym nearby. Squeeze in a quick workout on the elliptical or treadmill, take a walk downtown, or stroll through a nearby park.
If you have just 30 minutes, try picking a fitness activity that incorporates multiple muscles groups, recommends Businessweek. Possibilities are rowing or deadweight lifts. If you don’t want to sweat, consider a gentle Pilates or yoga class. Most gyms have places to shower if you do break a sweat.
If you like longer workouts and have time in the evening, consider bringing a duffel bag to work and heading directly to the gym. Eliminating the obstacle of going home increases the likelihood you’ll make it to the gym and saves time.
8. Stand up and stretch
Who said exercise had to be difficult? Try standing up every hour and shaking your arms and alternating legs, maybe taking the arms overhead and stretching from side to side. Bend the knee and take an ankle back toward the sit bones for a quad stretch, repeating on the other leg.
Shoulders often get tight from sitting hunched in front of the computer all day. For a quick shoulder stretch, head to the wall and rest the hands flat with the arms straight overhead. Keep a couple feet between the body and the wall. Let the chest sink down while pressing into the hands, giving the shoulders a gentle stretch.
When you do sit down again, make sure to practice these ergonomic tips for better posture while sitting.
9. Turn your office into a mini gym
Consider keeping a few free weights by your desk. Take five minutes in between tasks to work the muscles with arm raises. Those feeling brave might close the door, if there is one, and sneak in a few core-building moves or yoga-type stretches.
Most people are conscious of trying to improve their health, so don’t worry about people judging you. You might even get the whole team to exercise at the office.
10. Use a standing desk, or a walking one
How many hours a day do you sit? If you’re like most people, you sit for work, while watching television, eating, and doing many leisure activities. Long hours of sitting increase the risk for weight gain and a variety of health issues. Fortunately, cutting the risk is easily achieved by reimagining the work desk—a place where people tend to spend a large portion of their seated days.
Switching from a standard desk to a stand-up desk dramatically reduces the number of seated hours in a day, which in turn could improve health. Standing desks provide work surfaces high enough for people to complete normal work tasks while standing. Treadmill desks up the ante even further, by allowing people to walk while they work. When still, a treadmill desk functions like a stand-up desk.
Kirklyn Smith, a Boise, Idaho office manager, set a goal to walk 5,000 miles a year, all at work, reports MedCity News. He catalogued progress on his website, WorkIWalk.com, and reached his goal in November 2014.
Smith started off slowly, logging just a few miles a day. Over time, the number of mileage increased until Smith was walking 25 miles each workday. Smith writes on his website:
“My goal is ambitious, but it started small when I realized it was time to make a change in my health by making a change in how I work.”
Smith was initially motivated to walk at work after gaining weight. He found it difficult to find time to exercise amidst a busy career, and decided to try exercising while working. Smith says walking has become as natural as sitting. He finds it effortless to type emails and make phone calls while working, and loves that he no longer has to think about exercise because it’s a natural part of his day.
Stand-up desk options
Smith’s desk consists of a stand-up desk situated above a typical treadmill, sold separately, although fully outfitted treadmill desks are also available. TrekDesk sells a system similar to Smith’s for $499 if bought directly from the company website.
LifeSpan Fitness sells a fully outfitted stand-up desk that includes a treadmill and the desk surface. This higher-end option costs just under $1,500.
If you’d rather stand instead of walk, stand-up desk options include UpDesk, which offers a variety of sizes and options. Adjustable legs provide the option to switch between standing and sitting. Prices start around $1,000 and count on spending another $100 or so for shipping.
Higher-end desks sold by Updesk come equipped with electronic height adjustment, with mid-range desks offering that same capability, but with a manual adjustment. Lower-priced options have a fixed height, so it’s important to buy one that works for your height. The table should be high enough so the elbows rest at 90 degrees or more while typing.
A more affordable option is the Varidesk Pro. This option, which costs $300, isn’t a desk in itself. Instead, it’s meant to be placed on top of an existing desk, increasing the height. A cheaper, smaller option called the Varidesk Single is available for $275.
For an option that involves a tall seat, essentially a cross between sitting and standing, try a Locus workstation, which sells for $2,100. The company says the seat’s height supports a neutral spinal position and supports the body while preventing the muscles from constricting as they do while sitting. A seat is also sold separately for $715.
If you’re not ready to make such a big investment, consider building your own stand-up desk.
A relatively simple way to fashion one is by using a side table placed on top of a traditional desktop. The blog IAmNotaProgrammer.com features complete instructions for building a desk from a side table, shelf, and bracket with a total price tag as low as $22.
(Note: These prices may change.)
How do I transition to a stand-up desk?
Switching from sitting to eight-plus hours each day to standing can be a big adjustment mentally and physically.
Cia Bernales, a web producer at Fast Company, experienced muscle fatigue and even a little numbness in her legs after the first day she worked while standing. But she soon came to enjoy the setup. Her posture improved, and she found herself walking around the office more during the day since she was already standing, she writes.
Bernales had previously suffered from back pain, but found standing up all day alleviated the discomfort. She writes:
“Soon, I was okay skipping my monthly back massages.”
Although Bernales enjoyed standing, she ultimately started using a Locus seat that provides a cross of sitting and standing, although she continued to alternate between the two throughout the day.
To support a successful transition to a stand-up desk, make sure to:
- Wear comfortable shoes: You’ll need proper support while standing for so many hours each day. Bernales eventually stood without shoes on a chef’s mat to provide relief to her feet, and you may want to experiment with similar solutions.
- Stretch: Try simple stretches throughout the day to break up long periods of standing, recommends UpDesk. Standing tall, raise the arms overhead and bend to each side and then slightly backward, holding each position for a breath or two. You might also do a lunge to stretch the hip flexors. Don’t be afraid to move around, shifting from leg to leg or doing other movements that come naturally. Moving around is part of the freedom of working while standing.
- Ease into standing: You don’t have to stand for the entire day right away, or ever. Any amount of time spent standing instead of sitting is beneficial. And even if you want to eventually spend the entire day standing, you might initially alternate periods of standing with those spent sitting to promote an easy transition. That ratio will look different for everyone, especially for those with chronic pain. Try standing for 30 minutes, perhaps, or even ten and build up from there.
What other tips do you have to get in exercise at the office?