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6 Easy Ways for Desk Jockeys to Stay Fit — and Still Get Their Work Done

Male hangs from door jam
Alex Mahadevan takes time to stretch using the door frame of an office in The Penny Hoarder HQ. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder


If you’re like me, you’re probably hunched over your desk straining to read this article after staring at a bright computer screen all day.

If you’re like me, you need to shape up — literally.

Yes, my slothlike posture, screen addiction and overall lack of movement throughout a regular workday is a big drain on my physical and mental well-being.

“The human body just doesn’t perform well when it’s sitting for a copious amount of time,” said biomechanist Katy Bowman in a phone interview with The Penny Hoarder.

Even though I hit the gym almost every day for a couple hours, it’s not enough to keep my joints, spine and cardiovascular system in tip-top shape when I’m on my keister for the rest of the day.

“There’s a tremendous amount of research you can’t exercise off sedentarism,” Bowman said.

But I have good news for myself and you loyal readers: You’re only a few small tweaks away from living a healthier and less sedentary lifestyle without sacrificing productivity at work. And Bowman, author of “Don’t Just Sit There,” has boiled it down to a simple, easy-to-remember acronym: S.W.I.T.C.H.

Staying Active at Work Is Easy With S.W.I.T.C.H.

I’m an unabashed desk jockey.

Even though we have cool beanbags, colorful couches and all sorts of comfy spaces to chill out at The Penny Hoarder HQ, I work better at my desk.

And that’s fine because Bowman’s method to introduce movement into an otherwise sedentary day doesn’t mean completely ditching the desk. Here are six simple ways you can introduce more movement into your day without losing productivity.

Stand More and Sit Better

male sits on floor while on computer
Alex Mahadevan takes advantage of different areas and surfaces within his office to sit and work. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

I never thought about how I sit.

But according to Bowman, most of us collapse into the same position over and over, putting loads of pressure on the lower spine, sacroiliac joint and other hot spots on our precious skeletons. That pain in your tailbone might actually be from sitting the wrong way.

Let your core take some pressure off your spine by sitting at the front edge of your chair with a straight back — you want to tilt your pelvis forward. Sitting on a rolled-up towel can help. Seriously, it feels weird at first, but you’ll start noticing a difference right away.

Also, take advantage of different areas of your office, and try to sit in different positions on different surfaces. For example, I tried lying prone on a beanbag for a half-hour, then sat cross-legged on the floor. Being able to rise easily from the floor is a good predictor of a longer, healthier life.

A standing desk is nice, but following these guidelines should have you on track to tackle that sedentary office life.

“You can still sit, just sit differently,” Bowman said.

Walk for 3 Minutes Every Half-Hour

You know that meeting coming up that you know will drag for 30 minutes longer than necessary? Pitch a standing meeting or even a walking meeting instead.

One, there’s a good chance everyone will get to the point, and you can get back to real work. And two, it’ll help keep up with Bowman’s guidance of walking three minutes every half-hour.

A 2016 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that a few minutes of walking around improved mood, lessened fatigue and even reduced food cravings.

I found that last one to be true, as I ate 67% fewer mini cheese wheels and half the number of pretzels, plus managed to avoid the bags of popcorn that turn the floor of my work area into a butter winter wonderland.

“And longer walks can boost creativity,” Bowman said. But most importantly, it gets you moving and improves your cardiovascular system.

Interval-Train the Eyes

You should take a break from the computer screen, well, when you’re done reading this article, of course.

When you focus on something close to your face, it’s like flexing. And if you’re like me, you might get lost in work for a good three hours.

“It’s like working your biceps by holding a 20-pound weight in a fully flexed position for three hours,” Bowman said.

Relax those peepers by looking away from your computer and focusing on something far away, like a building outside your window or at Carol across the office. Yeah, Carol, I know it was you who grabbed my lunch out of the fridge yesterday.

Do this for a glance every five minutes and a longer gaze every half-hour.

Train the Feet With Texture

male stretching feet
Engaging the feet and ankles on a yoga mat helps balance the stress of walking on otherwise flat surfaces. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

OK, this one sounds kind of weird, but stay with Bowman here.

“Most of the surfaces you walk over are artificially flat and level,” she said. “But your ankles and the 33 joints in each foot require a lot of diversity underfoot to get all that movement in.”

True, especially here in Florida, where the closest thing we have to a hill is in a parking garage. And it’s even worse if you wear heels, Bowman said.

Kick off the shoes or heels, and use a pebble mat at your standing desk. Shift your weight and move around on it every now and then. A squishy, uneven surface works as well. I used a yoga mat and nobody looked at me weird, and it definitely felt like I was working joints I never knew I had in my feet.

Calf Stretches Throughout the Day

Calf stretches can keep your blood flowing when you’ve been sitting most of the day, Bowman said. And she’s got a few simple ones to keep your mobility up in the office.

Place that rolled-up towel I mentioned before on the ground next to your desk and stand up (come on, you can do it). Now put the ball of your foot on the top of the towel while keeping your heel on the floor. Keep that leg straight and step forward with your other foot and hold for a few seconds. Now repeat with the other side.

To hit the other muscle in your calf, the soleus, start the same stretch as before, but bend the knee slightly forward.

Want more specific exercises like this for the office? Click here for five big stretches that can transform your work life.

Hang From a Door Jamb

Turn those mouse hands into monkey arms.

You can increase and preserve the mobility in your shoulders by simply hanging from a door jamb for a few 30-second intervals each day. Grip strength, which has been declining, is also bolstered by holding your body up a few times a day, Bowman said.

“It’s almost like a use-it-or-lose-it situation,” Bowman said.

This is something I’ve been doing for a while at the gym but never thought to incorporate into my daily routine. Even just reaching up and touching the doorway for 30 seconds can help preserve that mobility.

Here Are Some Ways to Remember to Stay Active at Work

Bowman is a big fan of Post-it notes (as am I) and recommends leaving little reminders to get up, look away from your screen or grab the doorway on your computer.

“Those visual prompts are helpful,” she said.

Time Out is a free app that will remind you to take a break when you get sucked into a project.

And my personal favorite is to ask one of your colleagues to be your accountability buddy for some of these tips. When you forget to take a walk, Carol will be right there to guilt you into doing so.

Thank you, Carol.

Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. He swears he’s going to try yoga one of these days. Until then, you can catch him hanging from his executive editor’s office door. (Sorry, Lexi.)

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