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Stuck at Your Desk? Build Strength With These 5 Exercises

If you spend most of your day seated at a desk, these five chair-focused moves can help improve your health.

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If you’re like most Americans, you spend the majority of your time sitting in a chair. In fact, our work-saturated society has only become more stationary, with sedentary desk jobs increasing 83 percent since the year 1950, per research by the American Heart Association. 

Even when we’re not at work, we spend a great deal of time planted in front of our electronic devices — our televisions, our tablets, our smartphones. “With the continuous, ever-changing rise of technology and immediate gratification with the click of a button, it can be challenging at times to remember to move our bodies and get the blood flowing,” notes Melanie Kotcher, HIIT Pilates instructor and AFAA group-certified wellness coach.

While this extensive sedentary behavior can certainly curtail our exercise efforts, it also can have other negative effects on our health. One study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise even linked sedentary behavior to a 37 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Another study, published in the same journal, found a connection between sedentary behavior and Type 2 diabetes.

Exercise, even the stationary kind, can go a long way in reducing the risk of several of these diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strength exercises, in particular, have shown to be particularly beneficial for overall health and wellness, including the building of muscle mass and enhanced endurance — and most don’t require you to move from one place to another.

Here, fitness pros share sneaky strength exercises to do while stuck at your desk.

5 strength exercises you can do at your desk

1. Chair Dip

If you have a chair, you can do this simple, yet effective, exercise that targets your triceps muscles, the backs of your arms (a stubborn place for fat to fester) as well as your core, legs and glutes, according to Stephanie George, certified yoga instructor and personal trainer.

How-To: Sit at the very edge of your chair with your back straight. “Rise to a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart, and while keeping your back flat and your core engaged, push your hips back, bend your knees and lower your body as if you’re going to sit down,” George explains. “Stop just before you make contact with the chair, hold for at least 30 seconds and return to standing.”

2. Chair Squat

Similar to chair dips, this strength exercise is a play on the classic squat. It will strengthen your legs and glutes, and while a bit less conspicuous than the other exercises, it is a great way to do some strength training while at work,” explains Caleb Backe, CPT, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics.

How-To: Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your hips and toes pointing straight ahead. “Evenly distribute your weight on the balls of your feet and your heels while you push out your bottom and do a squat,” Backe says. “While squatting, make sure you keep your knees and feet in alignment so as to avoid injury and hold for a few seconds before standing back up.” He recommends doing this 10 to 15 times as one set and several more times throughout the day.

3. Seated Figure-4

While this is often seen as a stretch, George finds that it can be an effective strength exercise to do while stuck at your desk. “The seated figure-4 helps open up your hips and relieve lower-back pain caused by tight hips,” she says.

How-To: “Sit up tall in your chair with your right foot planted firmly on the floor in front of you and knees bent at 90 degrees,” she says. “Lift your left foot off the floor and place the outside of your left ankle on top of your right knee, flex your left ankle slowly, with a flat back, and hinge forward at your hips until you feel a stretch in your left hip.” She recommends holding this position for 30 seconds before switching legs.

4. Calf Raise

Ready to strengthen your calf muscles? With calf raises, you don’t even have to stop working while doing it!

How-To: “Standing at your desk, raise your heels until you are on your toes and remain there for a few seconds until you come back down,” Backe says. You can repeat this as many times as you’d like, but he recommends doing a minimum of 30 raises.

5. Sit on a Stability Ball

While not necessarily an exercise in terms of “reps,” swapping your standard chair for a stability ball is a great way to sneak in a strength exercise. Kotcher recommends alternating between a work chair and a stability ball (or even standing) so that you engage your core, which she notes is beneficial for spinal health and posture. “It is also important to remember to keep your shoulders back and down and your neck relaxed since we also have a tendency to jut our chins out, especially when looking at a computer screen,” she adds.