In this month’s articles on exercise, I’ve written about the somewhat unfortunate position modern humans are in, whereby many of us can get through life almost without moving, and exercise has become an extracurricular activity – rather than the simple means by which we survive. It’s now a thing that we have to remember to make time for.
On all those days when you think you just won’t have time to exercise, there’s still plenty that you can do to for your body. Here are some ideas:
1. Whatever you are doing, engage as much of your body as possible in doing it. Imagine that you’re dancing: even while you may be focused on making a pecking motion like a sophisticated chicken, you don’t just ignore the rest of your body. No, everything else keeps going – you’re doing that crisscross move with your hands on your knees, you’re wagging your rump in the air like it’s a glow stick, and, of course, your tongue wags in and out like you’re Miley Cyrus. It’s this whole symphony of movement that has everyone pointing at you, giving you big encouraging smiles, and taking out their cameras.
The same goes for something as simple as picking up a pen from the floor. You could just reach down and grab it in a completely unconscious way. Or it could be a thoroughly mindful mini-dance, in which you engage your legs, your abdomen, your back, your neck, your chest, your arms, and everything in between. How would a ballerina sit at a desk working on a computer? How would a flamenco dancer get in and out of a car? How would a kung fu master walk to the store? Try it for an hour, a day, or a week.
2. Pay attention to your posture. Most of the muscle strain we experience is postural. We routinely hold certain muscles in ways that overburden them, but because we do it almost unconsciously, we’re unaware of the impact. For example, when driving, we often hold onto the wheel with our arms up and our elbows slightly out in a way that can strain muscles of our upper back. When sitting at a computer, we frequently bring our head forward of the line of our shoulders, which can cause neck strain. When sitting on a squishy chair, we’re prone to round our lower back and put our weight on our sacrum, which can strain these back muscles and simultaneously shorten the psoas, which runs from the front of the spine to the inside of the hip bones.
So, keep yourself aligned. Take breaks from holding any one position for an extended period. Make space between your ribcage and your hips. Bring your shoulders back and open your chest. Breathe fully and deeply into your pelvic bowl. Imagine you’re pressing up against the ceiling with the top your head.
3. Try squatting, walking, or standing rather than sitting while doing otherwise stationary work. Instead of sitting in a chair at a desk all day, you can get a taller workstation and stand (always with a slight bend in the knees) or squat. Several times a day, stand with your back against a wall and lower yourself to a chair position, holding for one minute (or more) at a time. Another great option is a treadmill workstation that lets you walk while you compute or do phone work. For phone work, the best option would be to get a Bluetooth ear piece and actually get out into nature while having your conversation.
4. Do isometric exercises. Isometric exercises mean contracting muscles without movement – against your own counter-contraction, or an immovable object, or holding a moveable object in place. You can find extensive sets of desk-based isometric exercise. Here are a few:
- Crunch/Leg lift. While sitting in a regular height chair, lift your feet just a hair off the floor (like you could just slip a single sheet of paper under them). Hold for 60 seconds. Engage your core. Alternatively, you can do shorter, more frequent contractions.
- Shrugs. Curl your fingers under the edge of one side of the seat of the chair, shrug and pull, like you’re attempting to lift the chair. Hold for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 8 times on each side.
- Curls. With the elbow bent at 90 degrees, make a fist and press the top (thumb side) of the fist against the underside of your desk. Push as hard as you can, as if trying to lift the desk. Hold for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 8 times on each side. Multiple sets can be performed with the elbow bent at different angles.
- Triceps Pushdown. With the elbow bent at 90 degrees, make a fist and set the soft (pinky) side against the desk. Push down as hard as you can, hold for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 8 times on each side. Multiple sets can be performed with the elbow bent at different angles.
- Quad Press. Move your chair so that you can set one foot against the wall (knee bent) and press as hard as you can, as if trying to push the wall away (this doesn’t work if your chair has wheels). Hold for 6 to 10 seconds. Repeat 8 times on each side. Multiple sets can be performed with the knee bent at different angles.
A quick search will lead you to isometric exercises targeting the shoulders, chest, neck, calves, and other muscle groups. Even though isometric exercises are unlikely to lead to real gains in strength, they will at least help you to maintain decent tone.
Finally, if you’re going to treat your workday like an all-day workout, remember to do the things you’d do to support yourself during any other long bout of exercise: drink lots of water, get electrolytes, eat well, stretch before, during, and after, switch it up, always maintain good form, and have fun.
Dr. Peter Borten