Do it at your Desk: How to Relieve the Stress of Sitting at Work

We all know we’re not supposed to spend nine hours a day sitting. It’s not good for our bodies, and yet many of us can’t avoid it. We commute to work, seated in our car or on a bus or train, and sit down at our desk at 8:55 in the morning — barely moving until 5 p.m. We give our blood nine to 10 hours to pool in our legs and spend the day burning little to no calories.

And yet, what’s the alternative? Maybe you work in an office savvy enough to provide standing desks, but that’s a pretty drastic lifestyle change, and standing all day has its own repercussions. Ultimately, any movement can be good movement if you commit to doing it daily. Find some activities you can groove to and make a plan to stick with them.

Cubicle Confined

If you’re surrounded by coworkers, chances are you may not want to commit to jumping jacks or lunges during water breaks. Being conscious of your neighbors doesn’t have to mean forsaking movement, though. There are activities you can manage to do discreetly without disrupting your neighbors.

You probably stretch periodically, as limbs get sore or fall asleep, but intentionally stretching every hour or so means you’re adding some extra movement to your day. Try setting an alert in your phone or calendar to remind you to do one of the following stretches every so often.

  • Stretch your neck, rotate your head, or do slow “yes and no” nods, paying attention to the feeling in the back of your neck.
  • Stick your arms straight out in front of you and alternate between flexing your hands and relaxing them. Try rotating your wrists or giving yourself a two-minute hand massage.
  • Sit all the way back in your chair, so that your tail bone is touching your backrest, and lift one flexed foot at a time until you feel a light stretch in your calf and/or hamstring.
  • Rearrange your workspace. Pull your keyboard and mouse towards you so that your shoulders are pulled back as you use them, rather than rolling forward. Adjust your chair so that your feet land flat on the floor, and the desktop is at elbow height. Raise your screen as much as possible to prevent looking down all day.

You can also step it up by getting up and taking a walk. A lap around your floor, a walk to the water fountain, or a quick jog up and then back down a flight of stairs may not feel like much, but can do a lot to prevent health issues down the line.

Office Occupant

Having some space to yourself means you can do everything a cubicle-dweller can, plus more. You have the space to walk around while you’re on a phone call, and to do some major stretching when your body needs a break. Ready to step up your stretch? Try some of the following to take advantage of your space.

  • Sitting all day tightens your hip flexors, a group of muscles you’re probably most aware of when you lift your knees. There are different ways to loosen these, but to start with, stand up with one hand on your desk. Reach back with your free hand and grab your ankle. Now pull toward your behind. If you can’t reach your ankle, try for your pant leg until you can.
  • Fight the shoulder slump by putting your hands and arms straight behind your hips. Interlock your fingers and press your palms together. Now straighten out your elbows until you feel a stretch. Hold for five deep breathes and then gently swing your arms forward.

You can also make an effort to get up and go.

  • Are you have a meeting with one other person coming up? If there’s no presentation involved, take the meeting to go and walk and talk. It’s a great excuse to explain to a colleague what you’re doing and why. Maybe you’ll find a buddy to “workercise” with.
  • First check that your desk is sturdy enough to support some weight without sliding across your office floor. Now place both palms flat on your desk surface with your thumbs near the edge. Walk your toes backward until your shoulders are over your wrists with a slight bend at your elbow. Now do 15 mini-push ups (or as many as you can) to get your blood moving.
  • Get your heart rate up. Jogging in place, jumping jacks, high-knees or even just jumping up and down can get your heart rate up, increase your circulation, and improve your health.

These suggestions may or may not be what gets you moving, but they’re better than sitting. Try out different options and find what you like. Develop a system that you can look forward to. If you find a pattern and stick to it, you’ll start feeling the benefits and improve your health down the road.


Fiona Erickson is the community manager for Nursing@Georgetown’s online nursing programs, including one of the nation’s leading family nurse practitioner specializations. In her free time Fiona enjoys reading, cooking, and exploring DC. Follow her on Twitter @AllAboutFi.