Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
29 Mar

16 Tips for Desk Jockeys: What to Do About Sitting All Day

Even if your workdays consist of alternating between hunkering down over the laptop in a full Grok squat with perfectly neutral lumbar spine and standing up at a standing workstation for the entire work day you’re likely still engaging in some anatomically novel and potentially problematic habits. The bulk of you folks might get away with wearing minimalist shoes to work or maybe padding around the office in socks, but I imagine most people are sitting down, staring at a screen, and making strange tapping motions with their fingers splayed out in front of them for seven to eight hours a day. If this sounds a little too familiar you could probably use some help. I know I could.

There’s nothing wrong with this picture, of course. I mean, that’s life. That’s reality, and we can’t always change it. We have to work with it, and if we play our cards right we can certainly work around it. Play around on the margins and see where we can bend the rules. Isn’t that what we’re doing anyway? Trying to make things work in a totally bizarre environment with all sorts of terrible choices at our fingertips? And I think we do okay. In fact, it’s in the margins that the really big stuff happens. You make little changes that only you notice and they make a huge difference. Life only becomes pathological if you do nothing to address the problems that arise.

Let’s go over the big (little) problems with office life and come up with some possible solutions or workarounds.

All That Sitting

You know about the issues with sitting. For one, constantly sitting in a chair with a back is quite new to our physiologies. We used to walk a lot more, stand a lot more, squat a lot more, whereas chairs were a luxury item until a couple hundred years ago. What does this mean? Sitting places our hip flexors in a shortened, tightened, active position. Shortened muscles that stay shortened for hours at a time get stiff and overactive. Ever feel that pain in the crease between your hip and your inner thighs after sitting for a while? Yeah, exactly. At the same time, your hip extensors are being lengthened and weakened. Your glutes and hamstrings are all stretched out, and I bet your glutes are somewhat inactive. This is no good. The hip region is the prime mover from whence all power and locomotion originates, and if all the crucial supporting actors (glutes, hammies, hip flexors, to name a few) flub their roles because they were under (or over) prepared, the entire operation will crumble.

First, try avoiding the problem. Don’t just sit like everyone else. Explore your options, which include:

1. Standing workstation. We’ve gone over this plenty of times. I won’t do it again. Just do it if you can; it’s well worth it. Consider presenting your boss the data in that post as justification for standing. If he or she doesn’t go for it, you might have to rig up something yourself clandestine-style, or try something else entirely.

2. Standing on one leg, a la Seth Roberts. Seth was getting huge benefits from standing while working, but doing so for eight hours a day wasn’t feasible. He found that standing on each leg until exhaustion twice a day (for a total of about 30-40 minutes) got him the same benefits in a fraction of the time. I love getting lots of bang for my buck (hence my love for sprints and intense workouts), so this is worth a shot if you can’t do the standing thing for eight hours a day, either because it’s physically difficult or because your work won’t allow it.

3. Staying active throughout the work day. If you can’t hook up the standing station and you’re too embarrassed to try balancing on one leg, maybe you just get up every half hour and do stuff. Walk around, pump out a couple minutes of squatting, do some stretching. Break up your sitting and avoid long stretches of unmitigated motionlessness.

Mitigate the problem. Sitting will lengthen your hip extensors and tighten your flexors, but you aren’t helpless. You can fix the problem by strengthening your extensors and stretching your flexors:

1. Kelly Starrett’s “couch stretch.” This one is a real bastard, but in Starrett’s words it will let you bask in the sublime feeling of “undoing years of sitting.” Watch the video and do the stretch a couple times a week. You’ll marvel at how great your hips feel. And it only takes a few minutes.

2. Work on your internal hip rotation. Emulate what this guy’s doing. If it hurts, you need it.

3. Maintain a strong relationship with your glutes. Now, I know you Primal folks probably keep in touch with your glutes via plenty of squats, deadlifts, sprints, and over-the-shoulder admiring glances at the mirror, but if you’re sitting for hours each day there’s bound to be some disconnect. Glute bridges are a popular exercise, but I think weighted hip thrusts as popularized by Bret Contreras really build that lasting solidarity between you and your buttocks. If you think you’re engaging your glutes but are unable to establish the glute-brain connection, try poking your butt as you engage it. By actually feeling it harden against your finger, you’ll be able to establish the neurological connection, thus making future engagements easier and more effective.

4. Daily Grok squats and Grok hangs. Stretch your limbs and your body across all dimensions. Sit in a Grok squat and do a full Grok hang for at least one minute twice a day.

All That Typing

Lightly grab the middle of your forearm while pantomiming typing with the hand of the arm you’re grabbing. What do you notice? A vast network of tendons and connective tissue running up your entire arm supports the function of your fingers. You can feel it working and expressing as you “type.” That network can get gummed up, especially when overworked in less than ideal conditions – like a forty-hour workweek (that’s actually more like fifty). Poor typing posture, either from improper seating arrangements or inactive and tight muscles, can make things even worse. Obviously, you’ll want to correct the underlying postural/workstation/muscular issues, but what can you do for sore hands, fingers, or the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome? You can’t realistically go back to quill and parchment, so try these suggestions:

1. Try nerve glides. My personal favorite is the median nerve glide, which focuses on the carpal tunnel nerves. Here it is:

  • Sweep your arm out to the side until it is slightly behind you, palm facing forward, elbow gently straight
  • Pull your wrist back until you feel a gently tension somewhere in the arm
  • Relax the wrist forward until tension is relieved
  • Repeat 10 times
  • Ease the tension on the wrist to about half
  • Holding this position, gently raise your arm until you feel tension (stay below shoulder height)
  • Lower the arm until tension is relieved
  • Repeat 10 times
  • Ease the tension on the arm to about half
  • Tilt your head (bring opposite ear towards opposite shoulder) until you feel tension
  • Straighten the neck until tension is relieved
  • Repeat 10 times

Try the rest of ’em, too. Pick another glide and do them each once a day, at least. Once you start feeling better, you can probably drop it down to just one glide once a day.

2. Get a rubber band with decent tension, or perhaps a hair scrunchy. Take the affected hand and touch all five finger tips together, forming a sort of point. Slip the band or scrunchy around all five fingers and draw them apart against the resistance of the band. It’s like a reverse squeeze. Most people are far stronger gripping than they are going the opposite direction, so it’s worthwhile. Do this casually whenever you have time – in between emails, at home while watching TV, even while driving, you can keep it up with the off hand.

3. Hand massages. The palm of your hand has a fair amount of muscle. Like with any muscle, deep massage will break up knots and improve function – and reduce pain stemming from poor function. Dig into your palm with a ball or even your knuckles, or have someone else give you a deep hand massage. Try this halfway through the day. Note how your hands feel typing, give it a good five-minute working over with the ball or knuckle, then try typing again. Does it feel more natural? If so, treat your hands to a massage a few times each week, or more often, if you can find the time (you can find the time).

All That Shoulder Slumping

Sitting plus typing plus intensely focusing on a screen a few inches below and in front of us has created a nation of slumped shoulders, protracted scapulas, unstable shoulder joints, and tight pecs. We compound the issue with poor text messaging posture, but what happens when we spend a good portion of our lives slumping forward at the shoulders? Ideally (naturally), our shoulder blades are stable, retracted, and down. This protects our shoulders and allows full mobility without bumping into connective tissues. When we slump in front of the laptop, our shoulder blades drift apart, or abduct, putting our shoulder stability in jeopardy. Try fully protracting your shoulder blades (pushing your arms as far forward as possible by spreading your shoulder blades). Now, try lifting your arms directly over head, like you were performing an overhead press or setting up for a dead hang pullup. You can’t do it comfortably. Your shoulders are out of place. Do the opposite: retract and set your shoulder blades back, then lift your arms overhead. It should be a lot easier. That’s how shoulders are supposed to work, but the former example is how most shoulder slumpers “work.” Furthermore, slumping shoulders will pull the rest of your spine out of order, simply because you’ve got the combined weight of your big head and upper trunk pulling down. Not good.

1. Sit well. Recall the Gokhale Method. Key points include sitting with your butt “behind” you, rolling your shoulders one at a time forward, up, back, and then down, and keeping a relaxed, upright torso. Like so.

2. Where are you looking? If I’m sitting, I find it most comfortable for my monitor to be at or even slightly above eye level. This helps me look straight ahead without requiring downward head tilt, which often leads the rest of the upper thoracic into a slumping pattern – especially if you’re not vigilant and you’re prone to lapsing back into bad habits. If I’m standing, I’m not slumping, so slightly below eye level is perfect.

3. Maintain your thoracic spine. Consciously forcing yourself to keep your shoulder blades retracted won’t work forever. If you want it to stick, you’ve got to improve your thoracic spine at all times. Balance your horizontal pushing (bench, pushups) with enough horizontal pulling (rows). When benching, doing pullups, or doing rows, keep those shoulder blades retracted (back and down). Maintain good habits.


Finding lasting fixes may be ideal, but certain tools can help with the transition (or forever, really).

1. Kneeling chair. I’ve heard mixed reviews (with an unfavorable one coming from Maya White), but recent research suggests that they might be better than standard office chairs for improving lower back pain and promoting proper lumbar curvature.

2. Anti-fatigue mat. So your boss has finally succumbed to your entreaties and you’ve got yourself a standup workstation. The only problem is that your feet get tired really quickly. What to do? Try an anti-fatigue mat. Static standing is arguably just as novel as static sitting, but static standing on a somewhat soft-ish vinyl mat can make it a lot easier.

3. Ergonomic mouse and/or keyboard. The jury seems to be out on whether these are worth the money. I’ve never felt the need, but here are two different views from people who talk about this stuff for a living. One and two.

You are not guaranteed a hobbling gait, crooked knobby claws for hands, and hunch back simply because you spend the work week on a computer in an office. You can counter the postural imbalances and pain with smart stretching, mobility work, and exercise. You can avoid them altogether, or at least mitigate their impact, by changing how you sit or work at a computer. No standing in perpetuity required (although it can’t hurt!).

Got any more tips for the office workers among us? Let me know how you deal with it in the comment section. I’d love to hear from you!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Mark,

    Great tips for cubicle dwellers! I happen to be one myself and sitting for 8+ hours a day is certainly not ideal for a healthy and balanced lifestyle, but it’s good to know there are some small things you can do to help prevent your body from falling into a sedentary rut.


    Alykhan wrote on March 29th, 2011
  2. I’m impressed.

    Jesselyn wrote on March 29th, 2011
  3. So many options to choose from. I think the exercises and the standing desk are the most bang for your buck.

    Great point on the evolution. We are not designed to sit all day. We are designed to walk a lot of miles a day. Another reason why exercise is important :)

    AE Thanh wrote on March 29th, 2011
  4. I love my stand up desk and work area! Mark you should do a contest….im just curious to see what everyone else has got goin on in the office.

    kevin wrote on March 29th, 2011
  5. Amazing tips, I will def be trying some of these. I work from home and even though I exercise often, I still worry about my back and my hands from sitting and typing for so many hours a week.

    Diet Minded wrote on March 30th, 2011
  6. Great article! I recommend you all take a look at Workrave,, that helps you take micro pauses and longer pauses. It has some instructions for stretching muscles and you can set pause intervals. It has helped much since I started using it! It’s free and works both on MS Windows and GNU/Linux!

    Johan Känngård wrote on March 30th, 2011
  7. As a grad student trying to finish my program early I spend about 12 hours a day (yes, every day of the week) researching and writing. I can easily work straight through without taking breaks. Late last year I figured someone out there has devised an exercise program for office workers that gets them moving at scheduled times during the day. I found one program called DeskActive. It won’t make you physically fit or even get your heart rate up, but it does force you to take a break and move around a bit.

    azsundevil wrote on March 30th, 2011
  8. I have at work a standing workstation (makeshift) done with old monitor stands. I alternate standing and sitting in my stability ball. Very happy with the setup. When I sit on the ball I move down the keyboard and mouse to the desk and tilt the LCD, when I stand I move keyboard and mouse to the monitor stands, and tilt up the LCD.
    If you do not have monitor stands, old books will work fine

    AtkinsFan wrote on March 30th, 2011
  9. setup your watch alarm to to go on every 30 minutes while you are working and every minutes , watch your posture and correct it. if possible get up and do some walking. i walk down 30 stories down everyday first thing in the morning and take a 10 min walk between lunch and breakfast. I skip lunch go find a close by park and play hack the sack ball for 30-45 min barefoot.then do sprints at the lights on the way back to feels so awsome. you can even do squat every 10-15 min pretendenting you are taking something from floor underneath your desk..options are limitless, it is our brain making execuses and getting lazy from sitting.

    salim wrote on March 30th, 2011
  10. dragonmamma wrote on March 30th, 2011
  11. Thanks for the tip. I will be graduating law school and working as a lawyer this summer so there will be many long days at a desk.

    Dom wrote on March 30th, 2011
  12. The Gokhale method book has helped me immensely. I was skeptical about being able to learn good posture from a book, but it is a very good book, and i did.

    I sit on the floor at work from time to time, which seems healthier than sitting on a chair. After all, traditional people do sit; they just sit on the ground.

    shannon wrote on March 30th, 2011
  13. I sit on a yoga ball which helps- Im able to roll around on it and stretch and strengthen while I sit on my butt. I also get up and move around regularly.

    greentaramama wrote on March 30th, 2011
  14. My biggest challenge is that I am a programmer. By definition, this means if I am not sitting in my chair then I am not being productive.

    I already try to get up and move around often, and the 4-8 times per day that I do so is often twice as much as any of my co-workers.

    What I really need is a new profession, but don’t have the time to start over in terms of income.

    Helj wrote on March 30th, 2011
  15. “…seven to eight hours a day.”

    Man, I wish… Try 12-14. It’s killing me, physically and spiritually. I don’t know if I can even justify it anymore by saying “At least I have a job…”

    Thanks for the pointers, there’s some good ones to break up the day.

    Matt wrote on March 30th, 2011
  16. I switched from sitting on a ball to standing at my desk a few weeks ago. The first week was killer on my feet as I got into the habit, but that eased up.

    I now find that I naturally move around my space a lot more since I don’t have to get up first (never thought that was such a big deal). What’s more, I’m losing a taste for sitting in other contexts as well, like at mealtimes. Thanks for the links and advice!

    John wrote on March 30th, 2011
  17. You have inspired me – I just put a few boxes and books under my laptop and I’m typing this standing up. Working at home is nice that way.

    LM wrote on March 30th, 2011
  18. Great ideas! I know on the few occasions that I have to stand for 8 hours, my legs and back are killing me by the end of the day.

    Jon wrote on March 30th, 2011
  19. I have had great results by substituting an exercise ball for a desk chair. Mine is a 60mm ball. I set the firmness as needed to replicate chair height, and basically exercise my abs, back, shoulders and legs every time I’m at my computer. If listening to music, I can bop right along with it. This has totally replaced all other forms of ab workout in my life–I find no need for crunches, etc, by exercising while at work.

    Ray wrote on March 30th, 2011
  20. Great post! I sit on an exercise ball at my desk. I highly, highly recommend it. I would NEVER go back to a regular desk chair. The ball requires an active core and naturally encourages good posture.

    DeAnna wrote on March 30th, 2011
  21. At work I sit on a balance ball chair by Gaiam. Check it out on their website It has made a big difference in how I feel – no more slumping so no more sore neck and shoulders. I highly recommend it.

    Cathie McGinnis wrote on March 30th, 2011
  22. Thanks Mark! This is great!

    CHensley wrote on March 30th, 2011
  23. I switched my home laptop to a standing desk a month ago. Standing still on the floor bothered my back after awhile, so I put a pillowcase filled with tiny stones underneath my feet, and I walk in place on it periodically to move my spine. According to Chinese medicine, walking on a bumpy surface is supposed to lower blood pressure, too.

    Sonagi wrote on March 30th, 2011
  24. sitting on an exercise ball rather a desk chair really helps me remember to keep moving and makes me aware of my posture and core.

    AB Smith wrote on March 30th, 2011
  25. I find it ironic that the Primal thing is all about questioning conventional wisdom with diet, exercise, etc. Yet when it comes to sitting everyone freaks. Please explain how something as benign as sitting can cause all these problems. Stop freaking out.

    I had crippling back pain about 5 years ago(while doing a lot of core exercises, yoga,etc) and I bought into the posture/sitting theory of back pain. It was only when I realized that the pain and other muscle & ligament tightness was a result of repressing emotions, and not sitting for long periods(I sit all day doing software development), that I actually got better. I felt better and was pain free and more flexible than I had ever been in my life. All this while sitting for 8-10 hours per day and no stretching…i even dropped the yoga and I was still great.

    I don’t know if I have a point (or care to try and make one) but I just want to offer another view on this since this article it full of conventional wisdom and must be questioned. Also, having gone through horrendous chronic back pain (and healed myself) I understand how much it sucks to hurt and to have to be sitting all day.

    The key is good blood flow and I believe that starts from within yourself with emotional health.

    I hope this made some sense…anyway, after talking smack about this article I’m gonna get up and do a few pull ups!

    For any inquisitive minds, check out the work of Dr. John Sarno. I followed his advice (via a book) and that is what taught me how to get rid of my pain…not a standing workstation or stretching.

    specialrider wrote on March 30th, 2011
  26. This is excellent. I am one of those desk jockeys and I have had more than my fair share of problems because of it. Exercising has actually created problems for me after being active my whole life and now being sedentary so much. Tight hips and rolled shoulders affecting my brachial plexus are my big issues. I have never found anything to release the front of my pelvis and hips like #1. I’ve already started using it. Thanks Mark!

    Barry wrote on March 30th, 2011
  27. I build metal frames around my large LCD monitors. I suspend them by chains above an ottoman. I work laying on my back on the ottoman. I am never sitting up to work again. You people treat the symptoms. TREAT THE CAUSE.

    John wrote on March 30th, 2011
  28. Mark, these are absolutely phenomenal tips and I think you wrote them just for me!

    Eight to ten hours a day at my desk is way too much for my back and my typing and my mouse hand! I’m going to be adding these to my daily routine, on top of what I already do in my ‘primal’ workout. Thanks again.

    Andy wrote on March 31st, 2011
  29. Good tips… I don’t really have aches or pains, but sitting for 10+ hours a day in my home office is driving me nuts.

    Incidentally, I had carpal tunnel until I stopped eating gluten. Pain just went away, and hasn’t returned (and I do more computer work now than I did 6 years ago when I went gluten-free).

    Tracy wrote on March 31st, 2011
  30. Just a little thing…while I have a printer in my office, I send print jobs to the most distant printer.

    Ed wrote on March 31st, 2011
    • That’s the type of thing I was going to suggest – walk to the furthest restroom. Fill up your water bottle at the most distant water cooler… anything to force a little more movement.

      I’m also a fan of the “walk and talk.” If you’re having a 1:1 conversation with someone, rather than holing up in a conference room, if they’re willing, go for a walk while you talk.

      I will also go for walks during conference calls if I can review the agenda and realize I won’t need to be in front of my computer (and if I’ll be doing more listening than talking). I just throw on my headset and put the cell phone on mute and go for a stroll. I find it also reduces my stress and annoyance levels with some of the calls!

      ennasirk wrote on April 3rd, 2011
  31. I do most of my work from home, but have a horrible standing position as well as when I’m sitting, which would be okay if I changed it up from time to time or just did some others stuff in between…Oh well, lots more work to do, better get started on improving and such…

    Thanx for the advice…

    Love, Jules

    Jules wrote on March 31st, 2011
  32. Last September when our office moved, I decided that I was not going to take the elevator to my 3rd floor cube and started taking the stairs. I skipped a step and rose all the way up onto my toe. Three months ago I decided to turn my small bladder curse into a benefit and I “do the stairs” after each rest room visit. By the end of the day I’ve had a decent leg workout!

    steve wrote on March 31st, 2011
  33. When I read this, I wished the new office chairs without backsupport would have been mentioned, like the Backapp:

    Instead of resting the back, you train it.

    It has really helped me to get a stronger back plus I don’t have back pain in this type of chair!

    Also, I would like to mention the importance of proper eyewear in front of a computer. Many people seem to take this lightly, but what a difference it makes to have special lenses for the correct distance to the monitor!

    Thank you, I will try the exercises!

    Jonas Paulsson wrote on March 31st, 2011
  34. Great post. I second the recommendation on the Geek Desk for easily switching between sitting and standing. But I am surprised you did not mention a saddle chair. It is nearly impossible to hunch your shoulders forward im a saddle chair, and they allow for a “neutral” spine where the hip flexors are lengthened.

    It takes a little adjustment time, though less than making a full switch to standing. Plus, your core strength and balance are continually being improved. There are several good saddle chairs out there, though people in an office still must deal with the unusual looks…

    Kathy Sierra wrote on March 31st, 2011
  35. I have a box under my desk which I can lean or rest my legs and feet on. I can also push against it (wall behind it) and do leg exercise while sitting.
    I also do butt exercise while sitting.
    Sometimes I turn the chair around and kneel on it reaching over the back to the keyboard to type.

    Also, you can buy blocks to raise your table making you feel like a little kid =P
    It forces you to straighten your back because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see.
    I keep my table on blocks and have a chair I can adjust the height. I alternate between heights.

    Suvetar wrote on March 31st, 2011
  36. I deliver mail from my own vehicle. I have noticed my ankles getting swollen and my legs feel just very uncomfortable. Plus I think my back is getting it from all of the reaching I have to do to get the mail in the box. So, I am going to try to stretch everything out more and order the backsit. I hope this helps. Not sure why my ankles are swelling. P.S. Ask your carrier if your box is the right height for them. It is very difficult when I have to reach down.

    Kim wrote on March 31st, 2011
  37. When I read the post about a standing workingdesk and now this post I’m a bit puzzled. The reason for this is that in Denmark (where I live) it’s enforced by law that if you have to be behind a desk for more then 2 hours a day you have to have a desk that can work both for sitting and standing.
    Besides that I’m a physiotherapist working with OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) mostly in offices.

    A few tips:
    – Your underarm should be rested on the desk with you shoulders relaxed.
    – The top of your screen should be at the same height as your eyes and the screen should be around 50cm away from you (if you stretch out your arm you should be able to reach it)
    – Use your keyboard way more than the mouse. I possible go for a trackball or “the red thing on IBM laptops” instead of a regular mouse.
    – During your day try to, as much as possible, to change your position. 1000 bad sedantary positions during the day are better the 1 “good”.
    – Stand up during “rutine” work and sit down when concentration (this is evolutionary wired. When we have to concentrate we usually sit down)

    I have a ton of more tips and a link of links. The only problem is that it’s all in Danish! :)

    Joachim Kristensen wrote on April 1st, 2011

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