Exercise at Your Desk

Memo: This at-work workout can help fit fitness into your schedule

By Jean Lawrence
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

These days, it seems like everyone is working more hours and using the old "no-time-to-exercise" excuse more than ever. But what if you could actually work out at work?

While you won't get to the Olympics this way, you can do stretching, muscle-strengthening, and even short stints of aerobic exercises right at your desk (or maybe in a vacant conference room or stairwell). After all, doctors say any amount of exercise helps -- the benefits are cumulative.

"We are made to move, not sit at a desk 12 hours a day," says Joan Price, author of The Anytime, Anywhere Exercise Book. "As ergonomic as your desk or chair may be, sitting produces back pains, headaches, and listlessness. You become less productive."

Not to mention less ... er, thin. The U.S. surgeon general recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week. Yet most Americans don't approach this level of activity. You know who you are: You are the woman who's so stiff when she gets up from her desk that she walks like a robot for the first few steps. You are the man with repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. You are the person who vies for the "rock star" parking place closest to the door.

But come on -- can you actually go beyond working out the kinks and get some meaningful exercise in your cubicle?

Kelli Calabrese, MS, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, says yes. Calebrese believes in 60-second or 10-minute bursts of aerobic exertion. "This is cardio -- if you get in your [target] heart rate zone," she says.

60-Second Aerobics

Calabrese says that improving your heart rate variability -- your heart's ability to jump from resting to "pumped" -- has been shown to increase longevity and decrease heart disease risk.

While you shouldn't give up on your home or gym exercise routine, you can certainly supplement it with exercises done at your desk (and, on those extra-long workdays, it's much better than doing nothing.) Here are a few aerobic tricks to try during your next break between tasks:

  • Glance at the wall clock and rip off a minute's worth of jumping jacks. If you're a beginner, try the low-impact version (raise your right arm and tap your left toe to the side while keeping your right foot on the floor; alternate sides)
  • Do a football-like drill of running in place for 60 seconds. Get those knees up! (Beginners, march in place.)
  • Simulate jumping rope for a minute: Hop on alternate feet, or on both feet at once. An easier version is to simulate the arm motion of turning a rope, while alternately tapping the toes of each leg in front.
  • While seated, pump both arms over your head for 30 seconds, then rapidly tap your feet on the floor, football-drill style, for 30 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times.
  • If you can step into a vacant office or conference room, shadow box for a minute or two. Or just walk around the room as fast as you can.
  • Or do walk-lunges in your office or a vacant room. (You could also amuse your co-workers by doing these in the hall; remember Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks" comedy routine?). Set your PDA to beep you into action.
  • No conference room? Take to the stairs -- two at a time if you need a harder workout! Do this 5-7 times a day.

Want Something Less Breathless?

Afraid the phone will ring and you'll sound like a lion is chasing you? Price's book has more than 300 less dramatic -- but equally beneficial -- exercises. "I call these fitness minutes," she says.

Some strength-building suggestions:

  • Do one-legged squats (hold onto a wall or table for support) while waiting for a web page to load, the copier to spit our your reports, or faxes to slither out.
  • Stand with one leg straight and try to kick your buttocks with the other.
  • Sitting in your chair, lift one leg off the seat, extend it out straight, hold for 2 seconds; then lower your foot (stop short of the floor) and hold for several seconds. Switch; do each leg 15 times.
  • To work your chest and shoulders, place both hands on your chair arms and slowly lift your bottom off the chair. Lower yourself back down but stop short of the seat, hold for a few seconds. Do 15 times.
  • To stretch your back and strengthen your biceps, place your hands on the desk and hang on. Slowly push your chair back until your head is between your arms and you're looking at the floor. Then slowly pull yourself back in. Again, 15 of these.
  • Desk pushups can be a good strengthener. (First, make sure your desk is solid enough to support your weight.) Standing, put your hands on the desk. Walk backward, then do push-ups against the desk. Repeat 15 times.

Reach for the Sky