The 9 Best Exercise at Work and at Your Desk

The term ‘exercise’ which most of us associate with sporting activities actually comes from the Latin ‘exercere’ meaning to keep busy at work. For most of us sat behind a desk for eight hours or more it couldn’t be further from exercise as we know it.

With a sit down commute either side of the work day and an evening at home spent in front of the TV, most of use aren’t getting enough physical exercise. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, only 1-in-5 (or 21 percent) of adults in the US meets the minimum levels of physical exercise laid down in the 2008 Physical Activity guidelines.

Almost one-third of your life is spent at work, that’s an average of ninety thousand hours over a lifetime. Instead of saying you’re too busy with work to get regular exercise, try finding a few exercises that you can do at work, even at your desk, to improve your health and quality of life both at work and more importantly at play.

Our Sedentary Lifestyles

Work doesn’t tend to be the hard toil of previous years for most, with the majority of manual jobs being automated and many of us just sitting behind desks all day long. We sit down on the way to work, at work, on the way home and when at home we usually sit down for a meal or a night on the sofa with the family. Unless you play in a sports team at the weekends it’s very unlikely you get much regular exercise at all.

As a society we’ve become very inactive, a way of life characterized by much sitting and little physical exercise. The World Health Organization estimates 3.2 million deaths a year can be put down to insufficient physical activity. Our sedentary lifestyles are putting our health at risk with a greater chance of diabetes or heart disease. We can even lose strength in our bones and muscles the less we use them.

Although our prime objective at work is to actually do the work we’re being paid for, you could be using that time to improve your health too. A few simple exercises which you can do at the desk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and perhaps going for a jog or cycle at lunch can all help reverse this physical inertia. Let’s look at why it can be so important that you use this time more wisely before checking out the best exercises you can do at work or at your desk.

Sitting Is Making Us Fat

We sit down an awful lot. On average we spend 9.5 hours a day sat down, two more hours than the 7.5 hours of sleep we’re getting! An average day may involve driving to work sat in a comfy car seat before plonking yourself down into the office chair to check your emails, listen to your voicemails, play Candy Crush and even sometimes do work. Maybe you have lunch delivered to the office, or even take lunch in with you, so you can sit at your desk and work through lunch time. At the end of the day, you have that long sit down on the way home again where you probably can’t wait to collapse onto the sofa before going to bed.

That’s just an example of how much your sitting down all adds up. A quick hour at the gym every so often isn’t going to compensate for all that sitting down. We actually sit more at work than our leisure days where we stand more often and use more calories. That’s five days a week where we’re increasing our risk of cardiovascular problems and diabetes, with some experts arguing the higher levels of obesity in more developed countries is attributable to the higher numbers of people in work.

Fortunately with just a little more activity throughout the work day we can reverse the weight gain of work days and enjoy a healthy lifestyle in and out of the workplace. One study found that a group of obese women who increased their daily physical activity alone could burn up to 300 calories more a day. There are exercises you can do sat at a desk that require little more than your chair and a few minutes of your time.

Stretches You Can Do at Your Desk

As with any exercise regime, stretching can limber up the body and prepare for more strenuous activities you may undertake. Stretching at your desk can be a little like yoga, it keeps you bendy and feeling good too.

Moves like the rubber neck where you drop your right ear to your right shoulder and hold for a few seconds before repeating with the left side can be a gentle start and won’t attract too many stares. Reaching for the stars is a good arm stretch where you interlace your fingers and reach up to the sky as high as possible keeping the palms open facing the ceiling. Moving your head around and looking over the left shoulder and holding before repeating over the right shoulder can loosen up those neck muscles and work the upper shoulders.

You can even stretch your leg muscles and glutes without even leaving the chair at your desk. A knee hugger stretch simply involves bending your knee before lifting your right leg up and pulling it in as close to the chest as possible, holding for five to 10 seconds before releasing and repeating on the left leg too. A knee press that stretches the glutes involves putting your right ankle on your left knee and gently pressing to the right several times before switching sides.

For anybody who wants to sneak a quick yoga break into the day there are many simple moves you can do with just the support of your chair. This following Youtube video shows a quick yoga routine you can practice at your desk:

Exercises You Can Do at the Desk or in Your Office

Walk, Jog or Run on the Spot

This is one of the most simple yet effective ways to get the heart pumping but may attract a few odd looks, especially if in an open plan office or front desk. But don’t be too bothered, what’s wrong with trying to get a bit healthier, you never know people may decide to follow your example.

Simply get up from your chair and for 30 to 45 seconds jog, walk or run on the spot with three to five reps. If you want to make it more challenging try bringing your knees up to your waist level. The intensity of this exercise is totally dependent on your desired pace.

Push Ups

We’re not talking about getting down on the floor but there are many other surfaces you can push away from. Try using a wall or the edge of your desk, although if using a wall make sure it’s not a cubicle office wall, you don’t want to end up sprawled out on a coworker’s desk, not until the Christmas party anyhow! Try doing 10 reps, three times.

Cubicle Dips

You can do tricep dips just about anywhere and in the office you can use your desk or desk chair as long as it doesn’t have wheels. Start by sitting on the very edge of a sturdy desk or non-moving chair and put your hands either side of your body while holding on to the edge of the desk/chair. Put your feet on the floor, about two steps away from the desk and straighten your arms to raise the body. When you’re upright bend your arms so they reach a 90-degree angle and your body dips down, hold before straightening the arm, all the time keeping the body raised higher than the chair or desk. Complete eight to 10 reps to start with.

Desk Chair Swivels

If you’re lucky enough to have a desk chair that spins, these are great tools for core workouts. By sitting upright with your feet hovering above the floor, you can hold the desk with your fingers and then use your core to swivel the chair from side to side. Repeat going side to side for 15 reps for a great workout for your oblique abs.

Another quick exercise involves the wheelie style of chair and looks like great fun too. Sat about an arm’s length away from your desk, grab hold of the desk with just your fingers and thumb then using your core lift your feet slightly off the ground. Pull on the desk with your arms until the chair rolls forward and your chest touches the desk’s edge. Using the arms again, roll back by pushing away from the desk with your feet still raised from the ground. Repeat for about 20 reps, just try to avoid the temptation to make a “weeeeeee…” sound and don’t burn holes in the floor!

The Glute Squeeze

Some desk exercises can be performed without anybody even knowing your doing them. This isometric glute exercise is one of the best secret exercises which can help tone your butt. Simply squeeze your buttocks as hard as you can for 10 to 30 seconds, release and then repeat. Try to do as many reps as you can until your glutes tire or the meeting finishes. Just avoid that constipated look on your face as you do it, which may give away your discreet exercise efforts.

The Magic Carpet Ride

This exercise isn’t quite as subtle and really should be done in the privacy of your own office or at the very least in your cubicle at lunchtime when not too many people are about.

The magic carpet ride move exercises your core and arms. Sit cross legged with both your legs and feet on the seat of your chair. Put your hands on the armrest and suck in your gut before raising a few inches above the seat using your belly muscles and arms. Hold the genie-like position for 10 to 20 seconds before slowly lowering yourself back to the seat. Rest for 30 seconds and then repeat the process five times.

The Wooden Leg

A good exercise for your lower body strength is the wooden leg move. Again this can be done without leaving your desk or chair. Simply, while sitting, extend one leg straight out in front of you and hold it there for two seconds before raising it as high as possible and holding for a further two seconds. Alternate legs and repeat with each 15 times.

Shoulder Press

For upper body strength, you should look around the office for an old phone directory or just a ream of paper, basically something that weighs a couple of pounds. Start by holding the phone book/paper at shoulder height and then raise it all the way above your head. Repeat 10 times and do three reps of this great strength-building move.

The Stapler Curl

Look around the office and there are all sorts of things you can use for your keep fit at the office plan. A simple desk stapler can be used for a curl movement, it’s more about the movement than the weight (weightier staplers are better though).

In a seated position, place the stapler in your hands with the palms facing upwards. Sart at your thighs by bending the elbow and curling your arm up just like you would with more traditional dumbbell curls. Pause for a moment before lowering the stapler and repeat for 12 to 15 reps before switching arms.

You could even use a filled water bottle from the vending machine for extra weight, and get those added steps too. It may not seem as beneficial as a dumbbell curl but the whole idea is to get the body and muscle groups moving.

This short video from Forbes looks at some of the moves we’ve explored and throws in a couple more:

Move Away from the Desk: Exercises Throughout the Work Day

Burning calories while sat at your desk or in your office is good, but what about those times when you’re away from the desk or on your commute to work? There are many other things you can do to beat that sedentary lifestyle starting from the minute you leave home in the morning. Some of these may be more ambitious and it’s probably best to introduce one or two at a time rather than implementing them all together.

Change How You Get to Work

One of the biggest changes you can make from the very start of the day, is looking at how you commute to work. If you sit in a car every morning and evening, there aren’t really many exercises you can be doing, you should be driving not moving about. Maybe once or twice a week, leave the car at home if possible and try an alternative method of getting into work like cycling if close enough, walking if even closer or try public transport where you have to walk to the station or bus stop. Who knows it may be even more convenient than your normal car journey, and you get the benefits of a brisk walk or ride.

If you’re in the city and rely on public transport, try getting off a few stops earlier and walking the rest of the way to get those extra steps in before a day of sitting down. A few more steps daily soon add up and can help counteract that sedentary office way of life.

Park Further Away from the Office

It can be the first small victory of the day grabbing that parking spot right outside the entrance, but parking at the edge of the lot or even on the lot next door can add those all important few steps to each day. A brisk walk or jog can help loosen up your muscles after a long journey to work.

Cardio Stairmaster

The obvious choice when you’re in a hurry is the elevator but allow a little more time to use the stairs to get to your office. Using stairs is a great way to tone your legs and glutes while increasing your heart rate. Even going down the stairs is good for you as it works different sets of muscles. If you have a free 20 minutes or so during the day, going up and down the stairs is like having your own step machine at work.

Stand up and Move Around More

This may sound like a no brainer but you’ll be surprised at just how much you can get out of that chair in the working day. Instead of having your assistant do all your little jobs, a walk to the copier or coffee machine is another great way to get active. Walk around the cubicles and drop in on people rather than merely calling them on the internal phone.

If your job involves using the phone a lot, stand up while you’re talking and do a few stretches. Instead of sitting at a conference room table with donuts and coffee try having a walking meeting. Exercise has been shown to improve brain function and you may have some of your best ideas when more active.

Invest in a Fitness Tracker

Using a pedometer, Fitbit or smartwatch, you can measure exactly how many steps you take each day. Try to arrange for 10 to 15 minutes a day where you just walk. Maybe a visit to the park over the road for a bit of healthy fresh air and even get a work buddy to accompany, you could be doing them a favor too. People underestimate just what a great exercise walking is and it’s so easy to do.

Don’t Forget Those Business Trips Can Involve Exercise Too

If your job involves flying frequently and waiting around in airports to fly to the next appointment, don’t waste that time just sitting, you’re probably going to do enough of that when you get there. Airline travel can be a stressful time with constant security checks and frequent delays. Work off some of that stress with a little exercise and walk around the airport instead of just sitting at the gate for that extra hour. You could even buy your loved one a gift, as well as giving them the gift of a healthier you.

A Few Essential Tips for Keeping Fit at Work

As with many exercise programs, you should consult with a doctor before embarking on strenuous activities. If you feel any pain or discomfort, you should stop immediately and seek medical advice if the pain persists. You may have just simply overdone it but it could also be a strained muscle. Safety first, ensure any surfaces like desks, chairs or walls are strong enough to support the bodyweight you may be applying to them, it’s unlikely that your workplace’s insurance policy classes a tricep dip as an accident at work.

Sip water all day to keep the body hydrated and a homemade lunch with plenty of fresh veggies, fruits and whole grains can help keep you away from that vending machine, even if it does mean a walk. In summer months you could have an alfresco lunch and get some extra steps in too.

Finally, you may be worried about how this extra activity is going to affect your appearance and specifically body smells at work. Nobody wants to turn up to a meeting with damp stained clothes or host a meeting in an office that smells like a locker room. Most of the exercise you’ll do at work aren’t too demanding but if your workplace has shower facilities or a gymnasium, try to allocate 20 minutes at lunch time or a mid-afternoon break where you can freshen up. Having a spare change of clothes handy and a few cans of body spray or perfume can save much embarrassment in the long term.


Next time you go to the office, why not try starting with a few of the more simple moves we’ve looked at to start your get fit at the office plan. You may feel a little silly at first and it may attract some strange looks but when everybody else in the office is going down with the office bug your body will be strong enough to fight it off. Going home you’ll have more energy for that valuable time with the family or your loved one, and a well-exercised brain always performs better. Who knows, your productivity may go up and you’ll get a raise or promotion, you’ll make chairperson soon enough and will be around long enough to enjoy it.

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