Five ways to get and stay fit without leaving your desk

25 March 2021

Being too sedentary in our lives is not great for our health and wellbeing

We're all probably well aware that being too sedentary in our lives is not great for our health and wellbeing. If you're glued to a screen all day, transition to the sofa in the evening and then repeat daily, that's really not good for your musculoskeletal, cardiovascular or mental health.

The past year of lockdowns and home working has undoubtedly not helped. Research by health and safety consultant Arinite at the start of this year, for example, concluded that musculoskeletal complaints soared in 2020, largely because people were spending too long on their laptops, often in poorly kitted out home-office workspaces.

Clearly, regularly getting up on your feet and away from the desk - ideally to do some exercise outdoors - is the obvious answer; but in our often time-poor, deadline-heavy working world, it's not always that straightforward. This is where at-desk exercises and an at-desk active mindset can help. What's more, as these five tips below show, it's not as hard as you might think to get started and begin to build sustainable activity into your working day.

Five ways to stay fit at your desk

1. Think stretches as much as exercise

We may be talking about 'exercise' at your desk (and we'll come to some shortly) but, in fact, simply stretching and moving while at your desk, whether actually in your chair or standing at or beside your desk, can be almost as valuable.

Just as it is advisable to do warm-up and cool-down stretches before and after exercise, so building regular stretching into the working day can be a way in to actual at-desk exercising, as well as simply being beneficial in terms of maintaining mobility and flexibility.

There are some useful NHS at-desk stretching exercises here, including chest, sit and thigh stretches, chair twists and wall press-ups. Think too about neck and wrist stretches which help with joint and muscle mobility, as well as flexibility.

2. Get familiar with some exercises and work out what will work for you

If you want to take things up a level, there are lots of exercises online (often with videos attached) that you can check out.

These can include, but are not limited to chair-based triceps dips, arm pulses and circles, seated leg and calf raises, shrugs and shoulder rolls, water bottle weights (you can just use regular water bottles or buy actual weights that double up), lunges and desk push-ups.

With all these exercises, it is self-evidently important to check it is safe to do them within the constraints of your desk set-up. If you have a chair on wheels or moveable desk, then clearly you need to be careful if you are going to be pushing or putting your weight on them. Equally, build things up gradually, as you don't want to risk injuring yourself; get comfortable with your own fitness level and work out what's going to be feasible and realistic for you, given that you also have some work to do at some point.

3. If it'll help, get some kit

Up to now, we've focused on stretches and exercises that you can do at, or near, your desk with a minimum of fuss or kit. However, you may want to think about whether investing in desk-based equipment that can help you to be more active or just encourage you to use different muscles could also help.

A sit-stand desk is perhaps the most obvious example. You can spend a fortune on something high-end, but it is perfectly possible to get a basic adjustable standing desk for under £200. The key, then, is to make sure you are regularly using it in the standing position, and it can take a while to get used to typing, for example, while standing up.

Also, think about how you can be moving and exercising your body while standing so that you are not simply moving from sitting in one position to standing in one position. Fitbit has some exercises to consider here, such as calf raises and hamstring curls. There are other relatively simple ones you can try here too.

How about a desk pedal bike too? These can sit under a desk and allow you to pedal and exercise your legs and leg muscles as you work. Again, you can spend a fortune, but relatively basic models can be found for anything from £30 to £50. A resistance band, or set, can also be bought easily online (anything from around £10 upwards) and can help to open up and strengthen your chest and shoulders or improve your posture. You can find a selection of resistance band-based at-desk exercises here.

4. Work out what is going to be your 'nudge'

Nudge theory is the behavioural science theory that argues it is possible subtly to lead people - to nudge them - into making the 'right' decision you wanted in the first place. With something like at-desk exercise, the fact it is at your desk with all its myriad distractions, from emails to deadlines to social media, means it can be a good idea to build 'nudges' into your workspace to remind you not to ignore or overlook all of the above.

Inevitably these will differ, and it may take some experimentation to work out what is right for you, but these could be something as simple as a sticky note reminder on the side of your screen, a regular alert on your phone, or making your screensaver display the word 'pedal' or 'stretch'. As we shall detail next, another great nudge can be your colleagues.

5. Get colleagues on board

Doing desk push-ups into your screen while on a Teams call is likely to be seriously disconcerting to even the most laid-back of colleagues! Nevertheless, being open with your teammates will help normalise the fact that this is something you're committed to making a part of your working day. So, talk to your team or colleagues about what you're doing. It may even galvanise them to follow suit; 'doing it together' can be a powerful nudge.

If colleagues become used to the fact that you may be, say, standing instead of sitting during a meeting, or pedalling under the desk while talking, that's going to help embed being more active into your day. Of course, it has to be appropriate - a heavy physical workout or exercise that is so intense you can't talk properly or focus on the task in hand is unlikely to be a good idea.

Bear in mind, too, in some respects, making the transition to more active at-desk working is easier from a home office set-up, in that you're not doing this in front of your colleagues all the time. However, if you've worked to normalise this change as part of your collaborative working day, then it is going to be much easier to sustain and continue it once you do get back to working in a physical office space.

Will it mean offices of the future - when or if we do return to physical workspaces - will become full of teams pumping desk push-ups, stretching out from their chairs and running on the spot? Probably not and, after all, at-desk exercise is not going to be for everyone.

Yet if the experience of home working can lead to a mindset change, with desk-based working becoming less rather than more sedentary, then that's going to be no bad thing. In fact, it could even, in time, be a game-changer when it comes to workplace health and wellbeing.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.