11 Surprisingly Effective Exercises You Can Do Without Being “That Guy” in the Office

desk exercisesBy now, the call for lots of low level activity has seeped into the mainstream. Every other week, it seems there’s an article in Slate or the Atlantic or your local news explaining how sitting is bad for us, or puttering around in the garden is good for you, or simply exercising a few times a week while languishing on the couch or at your desk isn’t enough to stave off physical degeneration. That’s great, but the fact remains that most of us reading this are spending the better part of our waking lives in an office or at a desk. We’re getting paid to stay in the same location all day, so getting “lots of slow movement” isn’t always possible or easy.

What are we to do?

There are lots of “Top X Exercises to Do at the Office” lists out there, but most of them contain excessive fluff – exercises that don’t really qualify, that won’t really help you get or stay fit. How many of you are really going to sit there doing toe raises at your desk all day?

The problem with exercising at work and making it count: there’s a fine line between staying active and being “that guy.” You know, that guy. The one doing air squats at his desk every ten minutes. The girl doing pushups in the breakroom. The guy wearing a weighted vest as he gives a presentation. That’s all fine and good, and it’s okay being the crazy guy (wearing FiveFingers!) in the office, but sometimes we want to play it cool and blend in a bit, especially in a professional environment.

If you’re going to be active around the office, you might want to do it in a covert manner. Or, at least, not so overt that you make everyone uncomfortable and shower your co-workers with (an admittedly refreshing) sweat mist. Let’s explore a few ways we can stay active at the office without wasting our time or looking ridiculous:

The Stairs

The stairs are your best friend. They’re usually off to the side, away from the rest of the office. They are vertical and require opposing gravity in order to climb them. The most basic way to exercise on the stairs is to take them. Avoid the elevator and just take the stairs when you need to go somewhere. Just that simple switch is enough to see improvements in body composition and cardiovascular markers, but there’s also more you can do.

1. Stair Jumps

Plyometric exercises like box jumps are great, but jumping down from the box as many times as you jump onto it can do a number on your joints if you’re not careful. By using the stairs, you’re never jumping down. You’re always going up. That makes it harder (for your muscles, stamina, etc) but easier (on your joints and connective tissues).

Switch it up: Try single leg jump, single leg landing; single leg jump, double leg landing.

2. Loaded Stair Ascension

This time, you’re going to walk the stairs. Sounds easy, right? Try walking the stairs while carrying something heavy, like a box of printer paper. If your office has gone exclusively electronic, maybe it’s a box of tablets or something. Or a willing co-worker (or, for a tougher workout, a non-willing co-worker).

Switch it up: Skip a step or two as you climb, turning a simple loaded stair walk into a walking stair lunge. Change how you hold the object, too – overhead with two hands, overhead with one hand, in the front rack position, on either shoulder, out in front of you.

3. Stair Sprints

“What? Oh, don’t mind me! I’m just late for a meeting,” you can say as you whiz past confused co-workers in the stairwell. It’s fine if this happens multiple times in a single day, because hey, you’re a busy guy. So as to avoid excessive sweating and/or panting (thus giving up the ruse), keep your rest intervals long enough to fully recover. Sneak away for a single sprint every hour, maybe. That sort of thing.

Switch it up: Try not skipping steps, which is actually tougher to do for some people when they really get moving on stair sprints. It also adds a bit of balance, agility, and coordination practice.

At the Desk

Standing/walking/cycling desks are obviously ideal, but they’re still rare in the wild. The following exercises can all be performed while using a traditional sit-down desk – you know, that place you spend most of your time.

4. Faux Sitting

Engage your glutes and raise yourself up in your chair by about an inch, so you’re just hovering over the chair in a squat position. Hold that squat for as long as you can. Passers-by will just assume you’re furrowing your brow because you’re working so hard. They’ll never suspect that you’re exercising.

Switch it up: Do it single-legged. Lightly, slowly, almost imperceptibly bounce up and down.

5. Elevated Sits

Kind of like L-sits, except you keep your knees bent as if you’re sitting in the chair. Grip either side of the chair and hold your body up off of it an inch or so, using just your hands. Try to keep your elbows straight and shoulders back. If you don’t care who’s watching, feel free to turn it into a legit L-sit. Keep a toe lightly on the ground to handle some of the load if it’s too much.

Switch it up: Stack some books on your lap to increase resistance.

6. Isometric Contractions

Even though it sounds like it wouldn’t work, voluntarily contracting your muscles as hard as you can and holding it can increase strength and size. In a 2013 study, researchers asked trainees to do the following training regimen: hold your elbow at a 90 degree angle and flex your biceps and triceps as hard as you can for four seconds followed by four seconds of rest; do this for 5 sets of 10 contractions, three days a week for 12 weeks. After 12 weeks, trainees had increased extension and flexion strength and added 4% to the size of their biceps and triceps. You don’t have to make this your sole workout routine, but it wouldn’t hurt to do a few contractions during downtime just to keep your muscles primed.

Switch it up: Try doing the same with your legs.

7. Desk Lifting

Lift your desk ever so slightly and hold it until your biceps can’t take anymore. Or if your desk is bolted down, or too heavy to lift, attempt to lift it. This may turn into a kind of isometric contraction like the previous exercise, and that’s fine. Use caution. We don’t want any broken computer monitors reported.

Switch it up: Use your legs instead of your arms.

8. Resistance Band Shoulder Abductions

This one is obviously an exercise, but the results of a recent study were so compelling that I had to include it. Researchers took two groups of office workers with frequent neck and shoulder pain and had one group do resistance band shoulder abductions (video here) for two minutes a day for 10 weeks. The control group merely got health advice for fifteen minutes a day over the same period. In the exercise group, complaints of neck and shoulder pain dropped by 40%, while strength increased by 6%. No such effects were seen in the control group.

Switch it up: No band? Do isometric abduction contractions against the desk using the same arm/shoulder position.

9. Stand Up

Yep: just stand up. Stand up from your chair and sit back down. Do it a couple more times. Do it again in two minutes. Stand up at least once a minute. There are many ways to do it. The important thing is that you work against gravity on a regular basis. It’s not hard, and you don’t have any real excuses not to. So stand up. Often. It’s probably more effective to do this throughout the day, rather than do a single set of 50 stand ups.

Switch it up: Stand up with one leg, sort of a mini one legged box squat.

Active Alternatives to Standard Office Activities

We all do these tasks every single day, so why not make them a bit more active? Many of the tasks we mindlessly submit to every day can actually be modified to support an active lifestyle.

10. Walking Meetings

Next time you’re setting up an informal meeting with your team, ask if they’d like to go for a walk instead of sit in a room. There’s good research suggesting that walking improves cognitive function, so walking meetings can conceivably be more productive than sitting meetings.

Switch it up: Too cold or wet to walk outside? Too weird to pace up and down the same hallway with your group? Standing meetings are a worthy alternative to walking meetings and far superior to sitting.

11. Face to Face Pings

You could shoot that email, send that IM, or send that text… or you could get up and walk over to the person you’re trying to reach. Seriously, they’re right there, fifty steps away. Why not walk over and get some face to face contact?

Switch it up: Sprint over to the person. Okay, sprinting may be starting to look more like exercise, but there’s nothing wrong with a little urgency in your interpersonal communications.

And that about does it for the list of effective exercises you can covertly perform in the office. You can certainly do more effective exercises – like air squats, chair dips, or pushups – but you’ll end up being “that guy.” Other covert exercises – like partial calf raises performed from the safety of your office chair – exist, but they frankly aren’t worth the effort.

What about you guys? How do you stay active at the office without being the weird one?

Thanks for reading, all.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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54 thoughts on “11 Surprisingly Effective Exercises You Can Do Without Being “That Guy” in the Office”

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    1. I confirmed being That Guy when I brought in an over-the-doorframe pullup bar.

      Then my coworker showed up with a set of 20-40 lb dumbbells!

      …and my other coworker showed up with a pecan pie. LOL

  1. I managed a retail center, so ostensibly I *could* get a lot of walking in. Except that every time I head down that hall I get stopped by umpteen tenants with random complaints. Luckily my office is hidden enough that I can get up and move around as I please.

  2. I set a timer to go off every 45 minutes. There are online timers that are really useful for this sort of thing. Once the timer goes off, I get up, stretch, do squats, lunges, push-ups or go up a few flights of stairs. Then back down for another 45 minutes. I also drink a TON of liquids, which means I spend all day getting up to use the restroom – staying hydrated and moving more. 🙂

    1. Very true. I’m “that guy” at my office with my standing desk and now lots of other people are asking about it and are thinking of converting their desks as well.

      1. +1 for the standing desk. I can shift my weight, stand on one leg, groove to the music in my headphones, stretch – all without being that guy (/girl!). I’m still too embarrassed to bust out push-ups unless everyone else has gone home, but I can get a few deep squats in by leaving my snacks and cellphone in my bottom drawer 🙂

    2. Oh yeah, can’t wait for that, everyone doing calisthenics in the office. Once that takes off, maybe we can even start slaughtering animals out or desks, you know, to take it to that next level and be the new “that guy”.

      1. Maybe in a couple years “That Guy” will be the one sitting stoic and still and fat all day, while we become the new normal!

  3. Already converted my desk to a standing desk and I walk during my lunch breaks. Might set my alarm to go off hourly and do a sprint up the stairs here….unfortunately, I’m located in a building with only 2 floors so…short sprint. 🙁

  4. When we work on blueprints we find a flat surface to spread them out and work standing over them. It’s a good way to spend more time standing.

    1. Sound like a Primal way to work on Blueprints.

      Sorry, couldn’t resist…

  5. I work on the 12th floor of my building and carry two heavy bags to the office. One has documents the other has my gym clothing, meals, water and training materials. I have noticed other like minded souls traveling up and down as we exchange pleasant glances. I hit the office gym at 5pm on weekdays, it’s just a nice break in the day to sweat and release stress. I still sit to much because I spend half of my dad in a vehicle….tensing my abdominal helps but my problem area is my stomach and I blame the excessive sitting.

    12 floors is pretty taxing with the bags….keeps you motivated.

  6. Thank you for the tips! I will try to implement these tactics in my office also. Very helpful!

  7. No need to carry a box of paper up the stairs. It’s fairly common to carry a padded backpack with your laptop, work materials and everything you need for the day.My husband was doing stairs with a loaded backpack and using a stand up desk several times a week. Now he’s got a new job and no stand up desk. I’ll pass this on.

    As for me? As a stay-at-home mom, I find that I actually have to schedule in some sitting time each day because I’m frequently moving at a slow pace all day on top of my workouts.

    1. That’s me too, Kim! I’m begging to get a chance to sit for a period of time most days. Motherhood is no joke.

    2. Yeah, I have the stay-at-home mom job too and we only have one flight of stairs. It’s good though to encourage the wee ones to run up and down the stairs to get their energy out; no reason I shouldn’t be able to do it with them. I can carry the younger one on my back. All kinds of possibilities that I can take from this article to get some more movement in my day. No fear of turning into “That Guy!” I’ll be “That Mommy” that does lunges while pushing the stroller or whatever other crazy thing I get into my head in a random week.

  8. Thanks for the tips! I work for a Scandinavia-based company and our offices have all this crazy, high-tech furniture. My desk is height adjustable for sitting or standing. Maybe I should take advantage of this feature more often…

    But I must admit that I think the guy who sits on an exercise ball at his desk (yes, we really have one of those) is kinda’ weird. Reminds me of an episode of the The Office.

  9. As I read the article I was trying out the exercises. I can see where the worried look might come on the face with the effort. Going to need a wee reminder notice on my monitor or I will just dive into computer work without remembering to try these stealth muscle building, heart healthy and mood enhancing squeezes.

  10. Hubby works on a navy base (not active duty), and there’s a small gym at the end of his building. He also has access to the pool where the navy SEALS do their training and testing. He alternates between those two activities for working out: MWF = swimming after work, and T TH = in-office gym before work. Sometimes wires get crossed, and he misses a workout somewhere, but he just gets back on the horse, so to speak.

    I just ordered this (https://www.amazon.com/DeskCycle-Exercise-Pedal-Exerciser-White/dp/B00B1VDNQA/ref=sr_1_2/177-0750843-4985968?ie=UTF8&qid=1396376490&sr=8-2&keywords=under+desk+cycle) for him to use while at his desk, since the buildings are all single-story (hurricane zone), and stairs don’t exist here. Even if they did, he couldn’t go very fast because of his cane.

  11. I would caution you to not become THAT GUY if you practice #11 . My Boss is a big believer in popping in rather than sending an email (or popping in to see if I got the email he JUST SENT.) It’s annoying to have dozens of interruptions everyday because he prefers to move around. His pinging drives the rest of us crazy! LOL

    And a tip if you work in an office that has only one floor (like I do). I found a step stool in the back room that I use for step ups. I alternate legs – kind of like old school step aerobics.

  12. Loaded Stair Ascension: “…or, for a tougher workout, a non-willing co-worker”

    Love it!

  13. Well, I actually get outside of the office when I can make the additional time (during lunch or otherwise). Walks around the neighborhood, hanging leg- or knee-raises and/or pull-ups are great in the mid-afternoon. Wall-jumps are great too! Obviously, I’m not so covert when I’m right outside the office hanging from the low branches.

    However, I luckily am in a small enough office that the men’s bathroom only has one stall and a larger floor space outside thee stall with the bathroom door and sink. It makes quite an effective private space in which I can hide for 5-10 minutes and do various body-weight squats and push-ups off the counter or floor. Sadly, no stairs here!

  14. Oh my goodnedd! 5 flights X 4 reps, running then up walking up when fatigue set in, took 8 minutes with the walk down serving as a rest, led to a 168 HR for the final time up. Mission accomplished. Time to go teach!

  15. The isometric contractions really work! I have been consciously contracting my stomach muscles intermittently all day long for about the last month or so, in addition to the regular exercise I have been doing for about a year. I have noticed a difference in my stomach since doing this. Try it! Just be aware, that you are also using your back muscles too. I kind of over-did it a couple of times and had a little bit of a sore lower back. I have since learned to keep my shoulders down and relaxed (not rolled forward) and not to flex or arch my spine, and it’s fine now.

  16. Yeah, I actually find it way more disruptive to my train of thought when people come into my office instead of sending me an e-mail or an IM. Maybe I’m becoming antisocial. :-p I like the other tips, though!

  17. I do incline pushups pretty often and occasionally some air squats, but this is only when I’m working in the basement of my office doing filing (which happens often). It’s lonely down there but I make up for it with the workouts, and actually saw a lot of gains last summer when I was doing about 5 sets of 8 throughout the day, working my way to regular and then decline (tricep) pushups. Might have to start that again…

    I’m definitely going to work the isometric contractions into my daily routine though, as well as standing up on one leg instead of two. Every little bit counts, eh?

  18. Great post. I’m going to share this with my colleagues at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. I’m actually going to “post” it (the old-fashioned way) on our “Get Moving” wall (part of our office wellness program)!

  19. I just printed this out and hung it on my cubicle wall!! Thanks, Mark!

  20. Thanks for covering this topic. I don’t have a standing desk (and not going to unless I buy it) but I’m not convinced I really want to stand all day, and there is no access to stairs. However, the faux sitting, isometric squeezes, and desk lifts are going to come in handy!

  21. I have been doing 8 flights of stairs up, then down, then up 8 again and I’m shocked how quickly I’ve improved. Love the other ideas for additional exercises.

    I get up about 20 times a day to get more coffee and warm up my coffee. I hope that counts!

  22. As a teacher, I actually pace back and forth in front of the class while I am lecturing and I walk around the room if the students are working individually. I also walk for the majority of my lunch break. This has proved very effective in me getting me to my 10,000 daily steps.

    Not sure what my students would do if I started trying to lift my desk though…

  23. I’ve switched from getting coffee from the machine that’s a few steps away to one that’s a couple hundred steps away on another floor. I also take the stairs very slowly, which increases the intensity, and makes one floor feel like two. Next week I plan on starting to walk around the block where the parking garage is before heading into the office, rather than taking the shortest route possible.

  24. The walking up & down the stairs is simple and effective for sure.
    Funny, a lot of the people go to the gym and do a 30 or 45 minute stairmaster workout, but they couldn’t climb real stairs for 5 or 10 minutes straight. It’s amazing. Nothing like the real thing.

  25. my job is pretty physical anyway (massage therapist), and I rarely sit down during my workday unless I am on a break. But I will use some of these ideas for my clients, who are almost exclusively office workers.

  26. Also, here in Calgary, there are indoor elevated walkways that cover most of the downtown core (the +15) – perfect for walking meetings as you don’t even have to go outside when it is cold and snowy.

  27. I think the best one on the list is “walking meetings.” We used to do this in classes – and the same thing applies. Our brains were just working so much better because we weren’t sitting cramped at our desks. Of course this does depend on the weather, but if you have the option it is a wonderful idea!

    1. Even when my coworkers aren’t into this idea, any time I have a seminar or meeting I can call in to, I’ll go for a walk and use my cellphone/earpiece.

      Of course, that only really works well if you don’t have to do a lot of talking with buses and such in the background.

  28. I’m totally that guy! Rigged a pull-up bar, do sets of five many times per day (thanks Ben Greenfield) . Walk every day at my lunch hour, don’t sit much at work as I do TV lighting, eat primal and can’t stop talking about health, nutrition, and exercise! I’m 110 percent on he same page as Mark Sisson and appreciate all the information he shares!

  29. I’m a five fingers wearing standing desk doing yoga weird guy who isn’t so weird after all. I’m at a SOMA based startup, and the weird ones are the ones who sit all day.

  30. Awesome timing. I normally work out with dumbbels at home, and dusted off an old metal spring chest expander and brought it to work. It’s perfect. I put one of the handles on a foot and the other I use to do curls or rows. Yes, at work, at my desk. I guess I am “that guy” – nobody seems to mind, or if they do, they haven’t mentioned it.

    If you find something stable up high to put the handle on you can do pulldowns – one hand at a time.

    I noticed that there’s a new style of these on the market, they use springs that are about half the length, and are extended with clips and look really fragile. Meh. Wish I could find the old style ones, would be good to have a spare set for things like vacations.


    I am most fascinated with the idea that fitness clubs can become the corner pub or the youth center of the 21st Century, not just place to exercise but a community of people gathering together to unlock human potential and help each other achieve extraordinary mental, physical and emotional heights.

    When you look at new technologies such as exergaming, social fitness and fitness wearables it becomes clear that fitness is becoming an integrated part of people’s lives.


    1. I just take my FitDesk 2.0 exercise bike to work with me and pedal at least part of the day….since it comes with a computer desk on it , I can still be productive and work while pedaling….love it!

  32. Excellent ideas, Mark!

    Being a teacher I practically move all morning (mainly at a “lion-in-a-cage” slow pace) but the afternoons and evening usually get to me, when it’s time for grading papers and preparing things. So I’ll definitely include some of the ideas mentioned above and get some muscles involved! 🙂

  33. Stairs: up 2 steps, back down 1 step, repeat. Take longer for more exercise. Of course I make sure nobody’s looking and if I hear someone coming, I just revert to a normal stair climb until they are gone.

  34. I do squats in the bathroom. Lol
    If the break room is empty I’ll do yoga stretches for my back or if I’m standing, I’ll squeeze my quads, glutes, abs really tight and release then repeat. I love the idea of air sits and elevated sitting. I will be adding those to my routine!!!