Desk exercises to keep you active in the office or while working from home

Whether you’re working from home all the time or joining the growing group of hybrid workers splitting your time between your work office and your ‘home office’, it’s easy for your life to become sedentary. 

As the lines between the start and end of your workday blur, you may find yourself spending more time chained to your desk every day. This can cause musculoskeletal problems, leading to neck, back and shoulder pain, as well as affecting your general health. So what can you do about it?

The following six stretches can be performed at your desk and will help ease the aches and pains associated with sitting for long periods. 

1. Chest stretch

Sit forward from the back of your chair. With your thumbs pointing towards the ceiling, open your arms out to the side until you feel a stretch in the front of your chest. Ensure your shoulders are rolled back and down. Try to activate the muscles between your shoulder blades by gently drawing them together as you stretch your arms out. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds and repeat three times — this shouldn’t cause any pain or tingling in your arms.

2. Thigh stretch

Stand in front of your desk and place your left hand on it for balance. Standing on your left leg, raise your right heel towards your right buttock. Now, grab hold of your right foot with your right hand. You should feel a stretch along the front of your right thigh. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds, repeat three times and then switch legs.

3. Hamstring stretch

Perch on the edge of your seat and stretch your right leg out in front of you. Rest your heel on the floor with your foot pointing up. Now, lean forward slightly from your hips and look straight ahead. Try to keep your knee straight. You should feel a gentle stretch — but no pain — along the back of your right leg. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds, repeat three times and then swap legs.

4. Trunk rotation

Sit up straight in your chair, place your left hand on the outer side of your right thigh or knee, and place your right hand behind you. Gently twist the trunk of your body to the right, using your hands to help you, until you feel a stretch in your side and back. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds, repeat three times and then switch sides.

5. Arm stretch

Raise your arms above your head and clasp your hands together with your palms facing outward. Now, stretch your arms upwards. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds and repeat three times.

6. Neck stretch

Tilt your head towards one shoulder until you feel the stretch on the opposite side of your neck. Using your hand gently pull your head further to the side. Hold this stretch for 20–30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Stretch regularly

Taking a break every hour to perform several of the above stretches throughout your working day will help reduce aches and pains. Instead of trying to maintain a ‘perfect posture', try to avoid prolonged postures. The quote I like most is “the best posture is your next posture”. Even getting up to walk around for a minute or two every hour is useful. The key is movement; adding more of it to your working day will help ease tension in your muscles. Eg try standing up when taking phone or video calls and set an alarm to remind you to get moving.

Extra tips for staying healthy while working from home

In addition to desk exercises, it is also important to set up your workspace in an ergonomic way. This means arranging your desk, chair and work equipment to keep discomfort to a minimum — you don’t need to spend lots of money on an ergonomic set-up. Small changes can make a big difference. 

Avoid slumping on a sofa with your laptop and instead, move to a desk. If needed, use a cushion to raise your chair height and place a cushion or rolled towel behind your lower back for support. You can raise your laptop screen to eye level using books and use an external keyboard and mouse. You can also move your laptop to your kitchen or an ironing board to work standing up for short periods of time. 

Aside from your work set-up, it is important to get a good night’s sleep. Cutting down on caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and avoiding using electronic devices an hour before bedtime can help you get more restful sleep.

Daily exercise is also helpful to break up your otherwise sedentary day, get your muscles moving, and help keep your body fit and healthy. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day eg a brisk walk, cycle or jog. 

Author biography

Ms Melanie Thorn is a Senior Physiotherapist at Spire St Anthony's Hospital. She graduated from the University of the West of England as a qualified Physiotherapist and completed her core rotations at East Surrey Hospital. As a senior physiotherapist, she has specialised in musculoskeletal physiotherapy and is the lead physiotherapist at a National 3 rugby club at Dorking RFC. Her areas of interest include injury prevention, post-op orthopaedic rehabilitation and sporting injuries.