Can’t Ditch the Desk? 5 Ways to Stay Active at Work

June 21, 2024

woman standing while working

It’s no secret that moving more and sitting less is the trick to better health. But being active throughout the day is easier said than done — especially if you work at a sedentary job requiring you to sit or be inactive.

Olivia Rousseau, an MU Health Care physical therapist
Olivia Rousseau

American adults sit for a daily average of nearly eight hours while awake. If you have a desk job, you probably sit more than that. “If you’re not moving every 30 minutes or so as part of your work, you can classify your job as sedentary,” says Olivia Rousseau, an MU Health Care physical therapist.

There are health risks that go along with being sedentary — even if you get the recommended 150 minutes of weekly moderate physical activity when you’re off the clock. Unfortunately, moving outside work hours doesn’t change the fact that your body isn’t moving for an extended period while you work.

The good news is that small changes in your workday can make a big difference. Rousseau explains how (and why) to put moments of movement on your to-do list.

Is It That Bad to Sit All Day?

Sitting on the job is common — more than 80% of jobs in the United States are sedentary. But that doesn’t mean it’s natural or healthy.

“Our bodies are meant to move, and they need circulation to function properly,” Rousseau says. “Putting your body in the same position over and over for eight to 10 hours a day can cause muscle and bone weakness, metabolic dysfunction and pain throughout the body.”

A sedentary lifestyle is associated with an increased risk of:

  • Cancer, specifically breast, colon, colorectal, endometrial and ovarian cancers
  • Cardiovascular disease, partly due to increased risk of chronic inflammation
  • Higher blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Musculoskeletal issues, such as chronic knee pain
  • Obesity and weight gain
  • Osteoporosis and poor bone health
  • Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders

Experts also suspect that being sedentary increases your risk of depression and may impact your cognitive function, but there is no conclusive research yet.

How to Stay Active at a Desk Job

The impact of a sedentary job on your health is not about the total time spent sitting — it’s about how long you sit at one time. Research shows that even when the amount of sedentary time is equal, taking short breaks for physical activity provides more health benefits than sitting without a break.

“Moving 20 minutes throughout your workday is amazing and can reduce your risk for many health issues,” Rosseau says. “Even starting with 10 minutes and building up over time will make a difference.”

She recommends moving for one or two minutes every 30 minutes and offers tips to help you get moving while you work:

1. Move More at Your Desk

Equipment such as desk treadmills, under-desk bikes and exercise balls can get you moving. But they can be cumbersome and loud to use in an office setting. Besides, Rousseau says, you don’t need equipment to get enough movement.

Simple, low-profile movements can accomplish those goals at your desk and help you build strength. Try:

  • Heel raises to strengthen calves and help circulation
  • Glute squeezes to move blood to your lower body
  • Shoulder blade squeezes to prevent shoulders from rolling forward
  • Sit-to-stands, which work your lower body while jump-starting circulation
  • Triceps dips using the arms of a sturdy chair
  • Chin tucks, moving your chin and head back (like a chicken) to relieve tension in your neck

“The goal is to relieve tension and increase your circulation,” she says. “When your circulation gets slow, your energy levels decrease, and it reduces the blood flow to your brain.”

2. Set Reminders to Move

Relying on your body to let you know it needs movement sounds good in theory. But it’s not always easy to listen to your body when you’re buried deep in paperwork, have clients waiting or need to hit a deadline.

“Our bodies send us pain signals when we haven’t moved for 20 to 30 minutes,” Rousseau says. “You might find yourself fidgeting more to get blood flowing. But many of us are used to ignoring those signals.”

The good news is that you can set an electronic reminder to keep movement in mind. Program your fitness watch or tracker to remind you hourly when it’s time to move. Set manual alarms on your phone or computer to schedule move time according to your schedule that day.

3. Make Movement Part of Your Work Routine

Associating movement with regular work activities can help you make a habit of it. Ways to make moving part of your daily routine include:

  • Getting up whenever you send an email: Stand up or perform some movement every time you press “send.”
  • Moving after every meeting: Take the long way back to your desk from the conference room (or a lap around your home office) to get some extra steps and movement in.
  • Taking all calls standing: Sitting and standing stress different muscles, so it’s good to incorporate both into your day.

“We’re not talking about incorporating a full workout into your day. Even a minute of activity will make a big difference,” Rousseau says. “Building a habit of movement into your workdays happens more easily if you pair movements with your work activities.”

4. Get the Most Out of Your Movement

Everyone gets up at some point during their workday — to use the restroom, grab a snack or fill their water. But you can make the most of your time out of the chair by combining movements.

“When washing your hands, add some heel raises or squats to get your blood pumping,” Rousseau says. You can also put your snacks on the cabinet’s top shelf, so you need to reach for them. Filling your water hourly — maybe while doing should blade squeezes or leg extensions — gets you moving and helps you sneak in some extra hydration.”

5. Use Stretching to Reenergize

Fatigue is a common barrier to moving at work — especially in the afternoon. But stretching can reduce pain and stiffness and restore energy.

Rousseau recommends:

  • Chair yoga: Make a figure-4 by crossing your ankle over the opposite knee. Lean forward and feel a stretch in your glute muscles. Repeat on the other side.
  • Leg kickouts: Stretch your legs in front of you and lean forward. Hold the pose to loosen leg muscles and lower back
  • Lower back stretch: Slide your hands across your desk, lean forward and hold.
  • Neck stretches: Slowly move your neck side to side, touching your ear to your shoulder. Roll your neck in both directions to loosen any existing tension.

Stretching is also a great way to transition from work to workout after a long day. Lay on the ground or your bed for five minutes to help your back muscles relax and recover after being seated all day.

“It’s natural to be tired later in the day or even after work,” Rousseau says. “But push through that fatigue to stretch and move. In the long run, that movement will give you more energy.”

Next Steps and Useful Resources



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