Functional fitness: How to turn your desk into a gym

July 2023

Exercise helps you cope with stress, sleep better, and make you healthier and happier. But sometimes, life gets in the way of regular workouts. When you spend 8+ hours a day working at a desk, getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise and two muscle-strengthening activities per week can feel impossible.

But what if you could reclaim some of that desk time and turn it into functional fitness time? Depending on your fitness level and office environment, you can turn your desk into your own gym. 

With just a few minutes a day, you can start to chip away at your muscle-strengthening activities for the week—all from the comfort of your desk!

Upper body builders

Working long hours can lead to neck, shoulder, and upper back stiffness—strengthening those areas can go a long way toward preventing pain.

  • Seated raise. Sit up straight with your hands on your armrests, and use your arms, shoulders, and core to lift yourself out of the seat. Hold for 15 seconds, then slowly lower yourself. Repeat 5–10 times. Want to make it harder? Sit cross-legged with your feet up in the chair.
  • Bicep curl. Use a full purse, briefcase, or water bottle to work your arms. Keep your elbows close to your sides, and don’t rush the movement; the slower you go, the harder your muscles work. Go for 15–20 reps.
  • Pencil pincher. Are you feeling stiff and sore? A back strengthener can help. Drop your shoulders and roll them back, then pretend you’re holding a pencil between your shoulder blades. Pinch it as hard as you can, then release. Try 10–12 reps.
  • Namaste. Sit up straight, with your feet on the floor. Put your hands together in front of you, prayer-style, with your elbows out. Now push your palms together as hard as possible for 15–20 seconds. Feel those shoulders and biceps work? Good. Now do it 5–10 more times.
  • Tricep desk dips. Want to tone the backs of your arms? Stand facing away from your desk and place your palms on the edge of the desk on either side. (Make sure your desk is secured before trying this!) Lower your body until your elbows are 90 degrees, then push back up slowly, ensuring you straighten your arms completely at the top. Repeat 12–15 times.

Lower body moves

Sitting all day isn’t doing your body any favours—it’s hard on your joints, circulation, digestive system, you name it. Stand up as often as possible (or use a stand-up desk) and try these simple strengtheners.

  • No-chair sit squats. Move your chair out of the way and stand in front of your desk with your feet hip-width apart. Slowly lower yourself until you feel like you should be sitting in a chair, hold for a few seconds, then slowly stand back up. Do 15–20 reps. 

Want to add a challenge? Try a wall sit by leaning against the wall with your legs at a 90° angle and hold for up to 60 seconds.

  • Glute squeezes. This one is straightforward—and surprisingly effective. Simply tighten your glutes, hold for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat as many times as you want.
  • Seated leg raises. Want to feel your quads work? Raise one or both legs and hold for 5–10 seconds. Repeat 12–15 times. Add a challenge by looping a purse or briefcase over your ankle for added weight.
  • Chair swivel. To work your oblique abs (the ones on your sides), hold onto your desk, lift your feet and use your core to swivel your chair from side to side. Go slow and do 15 reps in each direction.
  • Invisible ab crunches. Strengthen your core by tightening your abdominal muscles and pulling them toward your spine as you exhale. Hold tight for 5–10 seconds, then release. Repeat 12–15 times.

These exercises are a great way to get more fitness into your day—even if you’re tied to a desk from 9 to 5. And when all else fails, take a few minutes away from your desk to go for a walk. Whether you are walking the halls or able to get outside, a short walk is a great way to break up your day and get your body moving!

Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you.

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