15 Desk Exercises

Adrea Gibbs
Man doing warm up stretches at his desk

Many people find themselves stuck behind a desk for hours with little or no time to get up and move around. The implications of a sedentary work environment can have a greater impact than realized on both your physical and mental well-being including the risk of deep vein thrombosis and sitting disease. Exercising 30 minutes per day a minimum of five days a week will improve health and quality of life. Still, even with all the evidentiary information, it can be a challenge. Exercising at your desk can be an excellent way to promote your own health and fitness. It takes commitment, but that effort will go far in keeping you mentally and physically fit.

Simple Desk Exercises

Whether you do all of your desk exercises at once or spread them throughout the day, begin with easy stretches to loosen stiff joints and muscles.

Exercise 1: Seated Push-Ups

This will target your biceps and triceps. Maintaining posture through the exercise works your core.

  1. Move your hips and buttocks to the edge of the chair, placing your hands on the sides.
  2. Keep your back straight and knees together, lifting your head and ribcage toward the ceiling.
  3. Slowly bring your buttocks forward and slightly off the chair.
  4. Bend your arms and knees, lowering your body toward the floor.
  5. Bring yourself back onto the chair.
  6. Repeat this exercise five times.

Exercise 2: Crunches

For the abdominals and back, focus on drawing your belly button back to the spine for maximum benefit.

  1. Sit with your back against the chair and your hands on your abdomen.
  2. Hunch your back and shoulders forward and contract your abdominal muscles.
  3. Hold the contraction for ten seconds.
  4. Release.
  5. Repeat five times.

Exercise 3: Buttocks and Hip Squeezes

Your gluteal muscles and hip flexors will be the beneficiaries of this exercise. Take into account your posture throughout to get the most from the action.

  1. Position yourself in the center of the chair.
  2. Squeeze the sides of your buttocks together.
  3. Hold for ten seconds.
  4. Release.
  5. Repeat five times.
  6. Next, raise your left hip.
  7. Tighten your buttocks muscles for ten seconds, then release.
  8. Repeat five times before moving to the right side.

Exercise 4: Wrist Circles

This will help with stiff joints and can help prevent carpal tunnel-related issues.

  1. Extend your wrists in front of you.
  2. Make ten circles with your left wrist clockwise.
  3. Reverse the movement in the other direction.
  4. Repeat on the right.

Exercise 5: Imaginary Jump Rope

imaginary jump rope

This quick aerobic exercise gets your heart pumping and blood circulating, which will help remove toxins from your system and reduce risk of illness associated with a sedentary environment.

  1. Stand in front of your desk making sure there is enough room to move your legs freely.
  2. Quickly alternate your feet as if you are jumping an imaginary rope.
  3. Incorporate your arms by circling them at your sides.
  4. Reverse your arms in the opposite direction while continuing to move your feet.
  5. Perform this exercise for sixty seconds.

Simple Desk Stretches

More often than not, you may feel your body compacting and tightening as you sit at your desk working. Using stretches is a quick and effective way to loosen up, and sometimes you can perform stretches without anyone nearby noticing. For all the stretches below, sit or stand tall by lifting the top of the head and the ribcage upward toward the ceiling, elongating the spine. Let the natural curve in your back remain. Keep the shoulders relaxed by rolling them back and down, creating space between the ears and shoulders. This is your starting position.

Most of these stretches, unless otherwise indicated, can either be done standing or seated.

Exercise 6: Head and Neck

For many who work behind a desk, tension goes right into the neck and muscles across the upper back. This will help to ease that pressure by stretching and loosening those muscles.

  1. Keeping the shoulder relaxed and separation between the ears and shoulders, turn your head to the right, chin over the shoulder.
  2. Hold for a count of ten.
  3. Slowly bring the head to the other side, chin over the left shoulder.
  4. Hold for a count of ten.
  5. Return your head to a forward position.
  6. Drop your right ear toward your right shoulder. Be sure the shoulder stays relaxed and lowered.
  7. Hold for ten counts.
  8. Slowly bring your head to the other side and drop the left ear toward the left shoulder.
  9. Hold for ten counts.
  10. Return your head to a forward position.
  11. Lower your chin to your chest.
  12. Hold for ten counts.
  13. Lift your chin toward the ceiling, taking care not to drop your head back against the neck.
  14. Hold for ten counts.
  15. Return your head to the forward position.

Exercise 7: Reach Up

This seemingly simple motion engages muscles in the back, as well as along both sides, chest, shoulders, and arms. The stretching action will wake-up those areas of the body and help give the upper body a quick refreshment.

  1. With palms facing forward, reach both arms down to your sides (if you are in a chair with arms, place your arms on the outside).
  2. Reach down, stretching your fingertips toward the floor. Then, continue moving your arms up toward ceiling, constantly reaching with your fingertips toward the walls, corner of the room, and then the ceiling.
  3. When both arms are overhead, keeping your elbows straight, clasp the wrist of one hand with the other.
  4. Still holding the wrist, press the palms of both hands toward the ceiling.
  5. Press for five counts.
  6. Release and change hand positions.
  7. Repeat, pressing both palms toward ceiling.
  8. Press for five counts.
  9. Release hands.
  10. Return your arms to straight down to your sides by reversing movement in step 2.
  11. Repeat twice.

Exercise 8: Side Stretch

You sometimes do not realize how sitting for extended periods compacts your spine, so this side stretch is an ideal way to lengthen the spine and stretch all the supporting muscles.

  1. With your left hand, grasp left side of your seat.
  2. Straighten your elbow and press your shoulder down.
  3. Reach your right arm straight up toward the ceiling, elbow next to your ear, keeping your shoulder relaxed.
  4. Continue lifting upward as you reach your arm to the upper left corner of the room.
  5. Hold five counts.
  6. Release.
  7. Repeat to the right side.

In a chair with arms, do the exercise the same as above or rest the elbow of the non-stretching arm on the chair arm. If standing, place your feet shoulder-width apart, place the hand of the non-stretching arm on your hip bone, or place the non-stretching hand flat on the top of a desk.

Exercise 9: Modified Cat & Cow

desk yoga
Some yoga can be modified for the desk

This exercise stretches the back, chest, and abdominal areas. It also aids in reducing pressure placed on the spine from sitting too long. There are a couple of ways to engage in this exercise. If seated, push back in your chair far enough that your arms are fully extended, palms on the edge of the desk. If standing, stand far enough back from your chair so you can bend at the waist and place your hands on back of a chair or the edge of a desk.

  1. Drop your chin to your chest.
  2. Round your back upward, thinking about the middle of the back touching the ceiling. Keep your shoulders relaxed.
  3. Hold for ten counts.
  4. Release.
  5. Left your chin up toward the ceiling, taking care not to drop the back of your head against your neck.
  6. Press the bottom of your ribcage toward the floor while pointing your tailbone toward the ceiling.
  7. Hold for ten counts.
  8. Release.
  9. Repeat five times.

Exercise 10: Shoulder Drop

You can relieve tension in your shoulders and neck with this exercise that stretches the muscles supporting the neck and across the top of the back. Work in a controlled fashion to gain the greatest benefit.

  1. Lift both shoulders up toward your ears.
  2. Hold for five counts.
  3. Press both shoulders straight down.
  4. Hold for five counts.
  5. Roll both shoulders forward four times. Think about your shoulders touching the wall in front of you, the floor, the wall behind you, and the ceiling throughout the roll.
  6. Roll both shoulders backwards four times, repeating the positions from step #5.

Exercise 11: Seated Rotation

Your body is designed to move in multiple planes and sitting all day without varied movement can be a detriment to overall health. Taking a moment to rotate the spine not only releases pressure, but stretches your hip area, as well.

Stretch that spine!
  1. Place your left hand at back left corner of your chair.
  2. Place your right hand on the front of the left arm or the left front corner of a chair.
  3. Keep your bottom square on the chair seat, taking care not to lift your right buttock through movement.
  4. Rotate your upper torso toward the left, pressing your left palm downward and pulling slightly inward with your right hand.
  5. Look to the left. For a greater stretch, try to look toward back of room.
  6. Hold for five counts.
  7. Release back to the center seated position.
  8. Repeat to the other side.

Exercise 12: Hip Flexor/Gluteal Stretch

Areas of the body that are the most restricted when working behind a desk are the hip flexors and gluteals. Giving them a chance to stretch will energize your legs through the change of position and posture. You can do this exercise in two ways. If seated, push back in your chair far enough that your arms are fully extended, palms on the edge of the desk. If standing, stand far enough back that you can place your hands on back of your chair or the edge of your desk. When crossing ankle to knee, drop your hips back, as if sitting in a chair, to position correctly, then press your chest forward. Standing produces a much deeper stretch to the hip and gluteal areas.

  1. Place your right ankle on your left knee. If flexibility is an issue, place your right ankle on the left shin in a position that is comfortable and hold in place with your hands.
  2. Sit up straight and tall and gently bend forward at the waist, pressing your chest toward your crossed ankle.
  3. When you feel the stretch, hold it for five counts.
  4. Return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat to the other side.

Exercise 13a: Seated Quadriceps Stretch

The large muscles on the front of the legs greatly benefit from a bit of stretching. It keeps the blood circulating freely throughout the body.

  1. Sitting tall in a chair, clasp both hands around your left knee.
  2. Gently pull your knee into your chest.
  3. Hold for five counts.
  4. Release.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Exercise 13b: Standing Quadriceps Stretch

Stretch safely!

This position does require more flexibility to perform correctly; however, you can stand in front of your chair, placing the top of your foot on your seat. As a progression, alternate to the seated position.

  1. Stand directly behind a chair, your feet together and hands placed on the seat back.
  2. Lift the heel of your left foot toward your buttocks and cradle the top of your foot in your left hand.
  3. Press your knees together.
  4. Gently pull the bottom of your foot toward your buttocks.
  5. Hold for five counts.
  6. Release.
  7. Repeat on the other side.
  8. For greater stretch, when your foot reaches your buttocks while keeping your knees together, gently press your hips forward.

Exercise 14a: Seated Hamstring Stretch

The hamstrings can tighten tremendously when you work most of the day in a seated position. Giving them a good stretch will have the same benefits as stretching your quadriceps, keeping the muscles lengthened and loose.

  1. Walk your feet out away from your chair as far as possible.
  2. Place your hands on edge of the chair.
  3. Press your chest toward your knees.
  4. Hold for five counts.
  5. Release.
  6. Repeat.

Exercise 14b: Standing Hamstring Stretch

This variation requires more flexibility and balance to execute properly but will provide the opportunity for maximum stretch with limited space and time in an office environment.

  1. Stand behind a chair, arms extended and hands on the seat back with your feet together.
  2. Keeping your knees soft (not locked) and your hands on the seat back, drop your elbows toward the ground while lowering your upper body, pressing your chest toward the floor.
  3. Hold for five counts.
  4. Release.
  5. Repeat.
  6. For greater stretch, release your hands to your knees, shins, or ankles, depending on flexibility, and press your chest toward the floor.

Exercise 15a: Seated Calf and Shin Stretch

These stretches are great ways to get the blood circulating without anyone being the wiser. This can also keep your feet from going to sleep, a problem with some who sit too long without any movement.

  1. Keeping your heels on the floor, lift the toes of both feet as high as possible.
  2. Hold for five counts.
  3. Roll through the feet, lifting your heels upward while your toes stay on floor.
  4. Hold for five counts.
  5. For greater stretch, lift your feet off the floor as you move through your range of motion.

Exercise 15b: Standing Calf and Shin Stretch

This is another great way to stretch your calves and shins.

  1. Stand behind a chair, your hands on the seat back, feet together.
  2. Keeping your feet flat on floor, lower your chest toward the seat back.
  3. Hold for five counts.
  4. Bring your torso up.
  5. Keeping your heels on the floor, lift both toes as high as possible off the floor.
  6. Hold for five counts.
  7. Repeat the series.
  8. For a greater stretch, move one or both feet further away from chair, taking care to keep your heel on the floor when stretching the calf.

Maximizing the Benefits

Anyone who has worked extended hours on any project understands accumulated aches and pains, stiffness, and soreness that are a direct result of being in a single position for a long period. Through the use of easy to perform exercises and stretches conducted right in your office space, you can relieve not only physical tension, but mental stress, as well.

15 Desk Exercises