After an endless procession of meetings and menial tasks, the workday is over. As you slam your laptop shut, you’ve got one thing on your mind after sitting at a desk all day: it’s time to get a good workout in.
But as you stand up for the first time in a few hours, something feels off. Your back and chest are tight. Your hip flexors aren’t feeling flexible. Suddenly, you’re conscious of how your slumped posture has pushed your shoulders forward and in. There’s no getting around it: sitting too long has taken its toll.
It may sound like hyperbole, but the science suggests that statement’s closer to the truth than you might want to admit. Research has connected excessive periods of sitting to increases in blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, and unhealthy cholesterol readings. According to the Mayo Clinic, a meta-analysis of 13 scientific studies found that “those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to that posed by obesity and smoking.” And that’s all in addition to the short-term stiffness you’re feeling.
The good news is that unlike smoking, you don’t have to “quit” sitting and spend every waking hour on your feet to lead a healthier life. Some of sitting’s negative short-term effects can be undone pretty quickly if you make the right moves to get back on track. Anyone with a desk job can easily add some mobility training to their weekly routine, which is one of the four types of movement that belong in every exercise regimen.
Without further ado, here are five simple but effective stretches that will keep your body feeling fresh and flexible if you’re spending most of the hours from 9:00 to 5:00 plopped in a chair. You can go through the whole list in less than ten minutes, making it the perfect warmup to help you transition from workday to workout (or your cooldown, if you’re the type to hit the gym before clocking in). And because there’s no equipment and minimal space required to get the most out of these movements, they can also serve as a useful bit of productive procrastination that keeps your body active while you’re working from home, even on a rest day.
Why it helps: As its name implies, this move opens up the chest, but that’s far from its only benefit. It also brings movement to your shoulders, and combats a rounded back, comprehensively attacking the three upper-body areas that are most impacted by a hunched posture.
How to do it: Stand tall with your feet planted hip width apart. Reach your arms behind your back until your hands clasp, being mindful to keep your shoulders away from your ears. From here, slowly lift your hands up until you feel a stretch in your chest. Repeat as needed for 30 to 90 seconds.
Modifications: Try breathing in mountain pose, or a standing “t” chest stretch with your arms out wide.
Why it helps: If you’re a fan of yoga, you probably know Child’s Pose as a relaxing place to recover from a particularly taxing movement. That’s probably because it puts everything from the upper back to the glutes at ease. In addition to undoing any rounding in the spine and releasing tension in the lower back, Child’s Pose can increase the range of motion in your chest while also keeping your hips feeling fluid and loose.
How to do it: Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees, forming straight vertical lines with your hands stacked over your shoulders and your knees over your hips. Without lifting your palms, send your hips back and down until they settle as close to your feet as possible, and let your knees spread out a bit to allow your chest to sink low to the ground. Once you’re here, you can accentuate the stretch by walking your hands further out in front of you until you feel a stretch in your shoulders and chest. Once you like where you’re at, hold the pose for 30 to 90 seconds.
Modifications: You may find it more comfortable to keep your knees together once you’re in Child’s Pose rather than spreading them wider to make room for your belly. Simply staying in tabletop and taking some mindful deep breaths can also offer benefits.
For another variation that targets the shoulders a bit more, try a cross-body lat stretch. From tabletop, reach one arm across your chest with your palm facing up until your shoulder makes contact with the ground.
Why it helps: While you might not feel as sore from a few hours of sitting as you would after a few hours on horseback, Equestrian Pose is a perfect way to target your hip flexors and quads, which can tighten up after too much time in a chair. Not unlike Child’s Pose, it’s another yoga position that can loosen up your hips and soothe your lower back so you’ll be ready to get right back in the saddle for your next workout.
How to do it: Begin in a half-kneeling position, planting your left foot out in front of you in line with your left knee. Find the ground with your right knee, with your right leg extended back and your toes on the floor. Slowly slide your chest forward towards the left knee, keeping your head and neck upright as your hands find the floor and your hips sink low. Shift your weight forward to feel a good stretch in your right hip flexor, bringing your head and neck slightly upward to deepen the stretch. After 30 to 90 seconds, slowly return to your starting position and repeat on the other side.
Modifications: As an alternative, try a standing quad stretch. While being mindful of your balance, grab ahold of your right ankle with your right hand, and pull the heel up and back, repeating with both legs.
For a more stable modification, a kneeling hamstring stretch is somewhat similar to Equestrian Pose, except in this case your left leg extends straight out in front of you, with your heel making contact with the ground.
Why it helps: Part of the problem with sitting is that it limits your lower body’s range of motion. This dynamic stretch compensates for that in a hurry, reawakening your hips and alleviating lower back pain — all while you get the blood flowing a bit before you launch into the rest of your workout.
How to do it: Start in a seated position with both feet planted in front of you and your knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Let both knees fall to one side, bringing them as close to the floor as your natural range of motion allows. From there, windshield wiper your hips all the way over to the same point on your other side. That’s one rep. Repeat five to ten times, and you’re good to go.
Modifications: Try clamshell pose by laying completely on your side with your hips and knees bent as if you’re curled up in bed. With your heels together, raise your top knee as high as you can before bringing it back down to meet your other leg in a controlled motion. Do five to ten reps before flipping over to repeat the motion with the opposite leg on top.
For a more advanced modification, the hip airplane stretch uses balance and twisting to get the hips working. With a slight bend in the knee of your planted leg, extend and engage your back leg behind you as your chest comes down, forming a “t”. From here, rotate your torso to one side and then the other, which works the hips.
Why it helps: You may not know the name of this stretch based on extending opposite arms and legs, but you’ve probably seen it. This movement works the core while also helping you wake up the hips and shoulders and — stop me if you’ve heard this before — helping with lower back pain.
How to do it: Similar to Child’s Pose, start in a tabletop position with your hands aligned with your shoulders and your knees aligned with your hips. As you inhale, extend your right arm in front of you, and your left leg behind you while maintaining a neutral spine. On your exhale, squeeze your core tight as you bring your right elbow and left knee together. Inhale and extend arm and leg fully once again before bringing them back to a neutral tabletop position. Now, complete the same sequence with your left arm and right leg. That’s one rep. Repeat five to ten times.
Modifications: Alternating between cat/camel movements from tabletop can offer another good stretch. Simply alternate between lowering your chest to the floor with your head slightly up, and pushing your back up to round your spine.
For a more dynamic variation of Child’s Pose that isn’t quite as taxing as Bird Dog, quad rockers are an excellent choice. Start in a high plank position, and without moving your hands or letting your knees touch the ground, slide your hips back until you’re in a crouched position that resembles a hovering Child’s Pose. Keep moving from this position to the high plank and back again to complete a circuit of reps.
Adding a bit of intentional mobility work to your routine is a great way to improve your posture and take a big step towards a pain-free workday, but it’s not the only thing you can do. In addition to these stretching and strength-focused movements, make an effort to take standing breaks over the course of your workday. Whether that means bringing your laptop over to a countertop, or taking a lap around the block to grab a coffee or just some fresh air, you’ll find there are physical and mental benefits to unchaining yourself from your desk.
Investing in a standing desk is always an option, but you definitely don’t need to spend a fortune on the latest and greatest ergonomic breakthrough in order to fight back against the scourge of sitting. If you have an Apple Watch, you can also get hourly reminders that nudge you to stand for at least a little bit. No matter what your workday looks like, all it takes to get your back, hips, and everything else back on track is a little time and a few good moves.
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