By 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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.