Why you need to stay active working at a desk
If you have a desk-based job, chances are that you are not getting enough exercise. Research shows that illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle cost the NHS at least £0.7bn and can lead to around 70,000 deaths each year. The Covid pandemic and lockdowns haven’t helped to improve things, either. Many people working from home typically sit around 9 hours per day.
So, it’s very important to follow NHS guidance: work out moderately for at least 150 minutes or vigorously for at least 75 minutes per week - ideally a combination of these. In addition, strength-building exercises are crucial for older adults.
Home office workers often claim that they simply don’t have enough time to do any exercise. However, we will show you in this article how it’s possible to stay fit and healthy while working from home by using simple ‘deskercise’ routines - even with no or very little equipment.
Please consult your GP or physiotherapist before starting any new exercise programmes, especially if you suffer from existing health conditions or if you aren’t sure which activities are right for you.
Physical and mental health benefits of desk exercise
Physical health benefits of desk exercise include:
- Increased metabolism
- Lower blood pressure
- Weight loss
- Stronger muscles
- Better quality of sleep
- Lower risk of developing some types of illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Mental health benefits of desk exercise include:
- Better work-life balance
- Avoiding burn-out
- Stress management
It has been shown that working from home can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. For example, we no longer have to endure long commutes or cramped and noisy conditions in open-plan offices.
Self-employment can come with its own mental health challenges, though. This is where a combination of desk exercises and mindfulness and meditation techniques may be helpful.
Risks of being sedentary all the time
As mentioned above, there are many illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle. These include:
- Posture issues and back problems
- Higher blood pressure
- Increased cholesterol
- Weight gain and obesity
- Sleep issues
- Muscle weakening as well as aches and pains
- Links to type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer
The UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines (PDF) summarise that “for good physical and mental health, adults should aim to be physically active every day. [...] Adults should aim to minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary, and when physically possible should break up long periods of inactivity with at least light physical activity.”
Is it worth getting a standing or adjustable desk?
We now know that sitting at a desk for long periods is detrimental to our health. So, should we invest in a standing or adjustable desk instead? We’ve looked at the advantages and disadvantages of these for you.
There are certainly reasons why a desk that allows you to work in a standing position can have positive health effects.
- Contributes to a non-sedentary lifestyle.
- Burns slightly more calories than if you’re sitting down (between 100-200 calories an hour vs 60 - 130 calories an hour).
- Ideal if mixed with a combination of breaks, good standing posture, and sitting down for some periods.
- The ‘Stand Up To Work’ research study findings published in the “International Journal of Workplace Health Management” (2018) showed that, for 65% of participants, standing up improved their productivity and also had a positive impact on their lives outside the workplace.
- If done correctly, standing for some periods can improve muscle tone and decrease the likelihood of certain illnesses mentioned above.
However, there are some disadvantages of standing for a long time.
- Standing up too much without breaks can be harmful to legs, feet and circulation. Recent research showed that “by the 2-hour mark, [...] participants experienced a weakened mental state, increased swelling in the lower limbs, and overall body discomfort.”
- Good posture is crucial and can be difficult to get right when standing for long periods.
- Cost may also be a factor, though there are options available for every budget.
Standing desk options
Fixed-height standing desks
Classic standing desks may be cheaper and easier to install than adjustable desks. They are also a good option if you would like to add additional exercise equipment, such as a treadmill, which we’ll discuss later.
However, the lack of flexibility when it comes to adjusting the height means that we usually stand up for too long.
Adjustable sit/stand desks are a better option if you want to alternate regularly between a sitting and standing position. It’s important to wear shoes that are comfortable in both settings.
You can find some fixed and adjustable standing desk options here.
Other things to consider
- Injury prevention: make sure to read our guidance on how to prevent injuries when working from home.
- Ergonomics: don’t forget to invest in ergonomic office chairs as well as ergonomically shaped keyboards and mice if you choose a sit/stand desk.
- Correct adjustments: online workplace planning tools can help you calculate the correct height of your desk and the distance from it.
- Posture: if you sit, ensure you have the right posture.
- Do your research: consider space and height requirements, storage options, as well as quality and cost of your desk.
What are the benefits of fitting desk exercises into your daily routine?
Apart from the general mental and physical health benefits of exercising discussed above, integrating desk exercises into your workdays is not only easy but also very affordable.
“Deskercise”, such as the desk stretches, rotations, and weight exercises presented in detail below, can also be combined with mindfulness and meditation techniques. Mindfulness apps like ‘Calm’, for example, also offer some gentle workouts.
There are quite a few benefits of fitting these desk exercises into your day:
- Flexible location: you can do these workouts in your home office or elsewhere in your house.
- Adjustable timings: do your exercises when it suits you. Before or after meetings, after comfort breaks, before breakfast or after lunch - the choice is yours.
- Pacing: you can choose the workouts that are right for your fitness level.
- Privacy: you won’t feel self-conscious as you’re likely the only one in the room.
- Wellbeing: less anxiety, stress, and better overall health.
Before you start, why not listen to our podcast on starting an exercise routine?
How can you exercise at your desk without any equipment?
If you need inspiration on how to do some daily “deskercise” without equipment or tools, look no further. We’ve collected a few ideas and videos for you below. A couple of these exercises use resistance bands, but you can also try them without these. You may even want to mix up the workouts with simple dance moves to your favourite music!
Complete workouts for those short on time
Abs and core
Back and torso
Legs and Knees
- March or run gently on the spot.
- Jumping jacks (these are also good as a warm-up exercise).
- Other leg exercises.
Lower body and hips
Neck and shoulder
What desk exercise equipment is available to help you stay active?
As mentioned above, additional exercise equipment may be a good option if you go for a standing or adjustable desk. We introduce a few popular options here. Before buying any of these, please consider the following issues:
- Noise levels
- Space requirements
- Levels of resistance
If you own a standing desk, under-desk treadmills may be a good option as you can increase the number of steps you take every day. A 2018 research study showed that treadmill workstations in a sedentary working environment resulted “in a statistically significant” though perhaps “smaller-than-expected increase in daily walking time”.
It may well be worth investing in this if you don’t tend to go for enough walks anyway. Ensure you have sufficient space and check before you buy how noisy the treadmill may be.
Desk exercise bikes and ellipticals
Other workout tools include under-desk exercise bikes and elliptical machines. None of these are to be used at standing desks - only while sitting.
Under-desk bikes: pedalling while sitting at your desk may look and feel unusual at first. However, it improves circulation, fitness, and even provides some upper body exercise. Unlike the treadmill option, the pedals are portable, small, and completely silent, which is ideal for flats. They tend to work best for those with smaller feet.
Elliptical machines: these are heavier but silent and effective. They need less desk clearance than the under-desk bikes, too. With their slightly ‘shuffling’ forwards and backwards motion, the main focus is on building muscle strength in the lower body. They will also suit those with larger foot sizes.
While balancing on a slightly moving object like a ball may be better for someone’s posture than a chair in the short term, recent research has shown that there are no large increases in core strength or calorie burn. There is also a heightened risk of injury as the ball is, of course, inherently unstable. One research study even warned of a danger of “spinal shrinkage” with prolonged use. If you still would like to try an exercise ball for a few hours a day, ensure you carefully check the size and space requirements beforehand and stop using it if you experience any discomfort.
Active sitting chairs
A better option than exercise balls may be active sitting chairs, such as kneeling chairs, leaning or wobble stools, or perching stools. You can find a selection of different options here. Research has shown that active sitting “can be effective in increasing calorie expenditure, energy levels, and posture [...]; thereby, promoting increased movement and physical activity throughout a given workday.”
Resistance bands, free weights or dumbbells
In order to increase the effectiveness of your ‘deskercise’, consider investing in good-quality resistance bands. Alternatively, you could use full bottles of water or other weighted objects, such as light dumbbells.
A good yoga mat is a great investment. It ensures that you don’t slip during stretching, cardio or toning exercises and is affordable.
Another inexpensive addition to your exercise equipment is a skipping rope. You can easily burn calories with this indoors or in your garden or local park. Just make sure you have enough space if you use it inside.
Other ways to stay healthy working from home
Whichever option you go for, there are some crucial things you need to do to remain in good health. Follow these top tips:
Drink at least 6 to 8 cups of fluid a day, ideally water and non-sugary drinks. You may want to set a timer, so you don’t forget to drink. Also, why not do some stretches just after you’ve had a glass of water?
Get enough sleep
Avoid unhealthy snacks and eat well
We all know that sugar is bad for us, and so is alcohol and caffeine. Ensure you consume these in moderation (or not at all). Beware: even ‘healthy snacks’ such as nuts and dried fruit contain a large amount of fat and sugar.
Set reminders to take regular screen breaks
You can set automatic reminders to take micro-breaks and longer screen breaks. Reminders should ideally be set every 20-30 minutes to rest your eyes and do some gentle desk stretches. A slightly longer exercise and stretch break should be taken at least every two hours.
Another good option may be the Pomodoro technique, which helps you to work for 25 minutes and then rest for 5 minutes. This also increases productivity.
Walk indoors and outdoors - and use your stairs
Get out and take walks in the fresh air if you can. Why not make it a rule to get up and walk around your home whenever you’re on the phone? Perhaps you could even arrange walking meetings with colleagues outdoors?
Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi
Other free fitness ideas
Plus, did you know that housework burns calories…?
How to build a new “deskercise” habit and routine into your day
You’re all set and ready to go. However, how can you build your new exercise habit so it becomes a permanent daily routine? It’s definitely easier if you follow our tips below:
Get an accountability partner
Don’t go it alone. It’s much more straightforward to create a new habit if you are accountable to someone else. Find an accountability partner (e.g. your spouse, partner, friend or colleague) and report back to them when you’ve finished your exercise routines for the day.
Set a challenge with friends or colleagues
You can also agree on milestones and set a fitness challenge with your friends or colleagues. From completing a certain number of screen breaks per day to doing some of our suggested daily exercise routines above, the choice is yours. You may even want to do some of these together.
Start with small changes and light activity
Never go from 0 to 100. You are much more likely to build safe and lasting exercise habits by starting small and with lighter exercises. Consistency is key. Once you have integrated these activities into your daily routine, increase their length and intensity.
For example, you may want to start with the beginner’s exercises suggested above and get up regularly to drink some water. Stop eating at your desk and go out for a lunchtime walk instead.
You can then move on to integrate extra stretches and more intense aerobic or bodyweight and strength workouts, and/or invest in some of the deskercise equipment we discussed above.
Remove unnecessary temptation
Some tips to ensure you succeed without getting distracted or pulled back into unhealthy habits:
- Don’t buy sugary foods or drinks. If you don’t have junk food at home, you won’t be tempted to eat it!
- Drink water or herbal teas instead of caffeinated or sweetened drinks.
- Consider installing a blocking app, so you don’t get distracted by film streaming services or social media when you should be exercising or taking a break.
- Don’t forget to set your reminders.
Listen to your body
Finally, make sure you don’t push yourself too much. Be kind to yourself. Don’t get disheartened if you have had a bad day. Just start your routine again the next day.
And - celebrate your successes! Reward yourself for keeping to your exercise routine or reaching certain milestones. For example, enjoy a nice healthy dinner, a walk with a friend, your favourite TV show after work, etc.
We hope this article has inspired you to find the right workout routine and equipment while working from home.
Selected resources and links
- Best Reviews Guide: Top 10 Standing Desk Chairs of September 2021 - https://uk.bestreviews.guide/standing-desk-chairs
- Blog: Ergonomics: How to prevent an injury when you work from home - https://www.ipse.co.uk/ipse-news/ipse-blog/ergonomics-prevent-injury-work-from-home.html
- Blog: Mental wellbeing for the self-employed - https://www.ipse.co.uk/member-benefits/ipse-advice/mental-wellbeing-advice.html
- Blog: The impact of the coronavirus crisis on freelancers’ mental health - https://www.ipse.co.uk/policy/research/the-impact-of-the-coronavirus-crisis.html
- Blog: The importance of your physical health - https://www.ipse.co.uk/member-benefits/ipse-advice/physical-wellbeing-advice.html
- BUPA: Desk stretches to ease aches and pains - https://www.bupa.co.uk/newsroom/ourviews/desk-stretches
- Calm - https://www.calm.com/
- Chartered Society of Physiotherapy - Working from home: easy exercises - https://www.csp.org.uk/public-patient/keeping-active-healthy/staying-healthy-work/desk-based-exercises
- Ergonomics Health Association:
- The 12 Best Active Seating Chairs - https://ergonomicshealth.com/active-sitting-office-chair/
- The 19 Best Under Desk Cycles & Ellipticals - https://ergonomicshealth.com/under-desk-cycles-ellipticals/
- Ergotron Workplace Planner - https://www.ergotron.com/tools/workspace-planner
- Expert review: Best resistance bands 2021 - https://www.expertreviews.co.uk/fitness-equipment/1407395/best-resistance-bands
- Freelance Corner Podcast - https://freelancecorner.co.uk/podcast-importance-of-exercise-for-freelancers/
- Healthline - Stretches to do at work every day - https://www.healthline.com/health/deskercise
- Make Use Of - 5 Free Apps for Reminders to Take a Break from Screens - https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/apps-reminders-take-break-screens/
- Mayo Clinic Deskercise Playlist - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSWR1ylG_6JbA1CdSHlVmKnAWFiYm_b4k
- NHS Fitness Studio - https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/nhs-fitness-studio/
- NHS Exercise Guide - https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/
- TechRadar reviews:
- Best standing desks of 2021 for home office or WFH- https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/best-standing-desk
- Best ergonomic keyboards 2021 - https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/best-ergonomic-keyboards
- Best ergonomic mouse 2021 - https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/best-ergonomic-mouse
- Best under-desk treadmills 2021 - https://www.techradar.com/uk/best/best-under-desk-treadmills
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