January 3, 2015

Our Desks are Killing Us—Here’s How to Fight Back.


I work 9-5 at a desk, hunching over and crunching my neck like a Smeagol-esque worker drone in a J. Crew skirt suit.

A consequence of being the resident exercise/yoga/healthy living junky among my colleagues is that they approach me with their health inquiries often.

I hear things like: “This [points to body part] is killing me. What is this muscle and why is it hurting?” Or, “I’m exhausted, even though I just drank four cups of coffee!”

Emerging studies are indicating that sitting in a desk all day isn’t just an uncomfortable recipe for an existential crisis; it’s actually dangerous to your physical health. The most shocking take-away from the review of 43 different studies published this year is that each hour you spend sitting reduces your life expectancy by about 21.8 minutes, no matter what you do outside of the office.

For those of us who are currently trapped in our desk jobs, wasting away, I figured I’d go over a few things you can do to help you body deal with the unpleasant necessity of sitting in a chair, gazing into the abyss of a screen and typing furiously all day.

Exercise before or after work.

Find movement in your body during your time off. People take no issue with existing in a state of perpetual stagnation: we slide out of bed, plop into our chairs at work, go home and sink into our couches, sit at the dinner table, and crawl back into bed.

Take a walk in the morning (your dog would appreciate it!) or in the evening after dinner. If you’re like me, exercising in the morning is a laughable proposition, so be disciplined about making sure you set yourself up for success after work. I pack all of my yoga clothes, mat, towel, and a snack so I can drive straight to the studio on auto-pilot after work, impermeable to excuses.

Exercise during work.

Sitting for too long causes various metabolic changes. Our bodies become more resistant to insulin when we fail to get up and move around. Increased cancer rates are observed in people who sit a lot, which may be due to the altered expression of the genes involved in suppressing inflammation.

I take a 10 minute walk every two or so hours at work, or whenever I’m dealing with a mental block. This gives me an opportunity to step away from my task, clear my mind, and return to what I was doing with some new perspective. It also gives my eyes a change to shift focus to far-off scenery from the screen 18 inches in front of my face, which is a good way to avoid eye strain and headaches.

If I’m feeling particularly energetic, I set a squat goal for myself during the work day. I usually aim for 100 squats (four sets of 25), which is a great way to get your heart rate up and slowly build strength while at work.

Don’t eat shitty food.

Nutritionally devoid food makes lots of appearances in my office, and sometimes the siren song of donuts is too sweet to resist. Indulging can leave you feeling lethargic and kills your productivity.

It varies widely from person to person, but it’s estimated that you burn about 50 calories less per hour when sitting, as opposed to standing. Add a few extra pieces of chocolate from the HR lady’s candy bowl per week, and you’re facing a huge calorie excess over the course of a year.

That’s why I arm myself with healthy snacks—Kind Bars, fresh fruit, hummus and veggies. Don’t get too idealistic with your healthy food though—bring stuff that you actually want to eat so it will effectively deter you from the buffet line in the break room.

I’ve seen people pack on the pounds while working a desk job just because the office environment runs on potlucks, beer Fridays, and birthday parties every two weeks. When I lived in St. Louis, there was a constant supply of BBQ, Chik-fil-A and pie that seemed to appear in my general vicinity at least once a week. Don’t test your willpower with junk food, because you’re fighting a losing battle.

Make your environment work for you.

Tweak your surroundings to fit your needs. I’ve elevated my monitors so that I’m looking straight ahead, not cranking my neck. I have a bolster on my chair and an ergonomic mouse. A few of my colleagues have the standing desks, which is a fantastic way to keep your legs and core active during the work day.

Some people also sit on exercise balls at work, which engages your core stabilizing muscles passively. I keep fresh water next to me at all times, and I’ve brought some plants in to bring me company in my workspace. I only sing to them on occasions.


A few quick stretches:

Target your traps (the muscle that runs from the back of your neck down to your shoulder) by crossing your right arm over your chest, grabbing your left shoulder and pulling it down, while letting your right ear fall to meet your right shoulder. For more depth, gently roll your head forward until you feel sensation (don’t forget to switch sides). This creates space and length in your neck, and helps avoid that upper-back crunch that comes from desk work.

Back bends: I try to get a few standing back bends in during the work day to find movement in my lower back. Honestly, it feels so good that I don’t mind when people at work tell me I’m a freak.

Forward folds: You can do this in your chair, as the intention here is to get your heart below your head. This encourages fresh blood flow to the brain (don’t worry, your brain will still get blood otherwise—yay circulatory system!) and is believed to be beneficial for people looking to gain new perspective. So, if you’re stuck on a problem, get upside down in whatever way is accessible to you.


If you have the ability to be worked on by an actual masseuse with any level of frequency, good for you and congratulations for being filthy rich. If you’re like the rest of us peons, you’re probably going to have to learn how to work out your own damn muscle kinks. I give my shoulders the pain-massage treatment (hurts so good) almost every day to help break up knots.

However, my favorite massage that you probably never knew you needed is a forearm massage. Find the insertion of the muscle just under your elbow and dig your thumb into it, pressing down into the tension to create sensation. If this feels like fire, it’s probably because you type on a computer all day and you didn’t realize how much you were engaging this muscle (forearm muscles: not just for rock climbers and 14-year old boys). I always surprise my friends by showing them just how tight their arm has gotten—it’s a fun party trick to learn. Also, I’m not very fun at parties.

Bottom line, be aware of the risks associated with sitting for too long, and proactively address them by giving your body a little extra love throughout the day. I know that there are plenty of things I missed with this list, so feel free to let me know what you do to combat the desk job blues.

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Author: Margaret Link

Editor: Travis May

Photo: John Maddin/Flickr

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