Desk Exercises for Lazy Freelancers

A couple of weeks ago, after spending a very unhealthy amount of time sitting cross-legged at my desk, I began noticing a pain in the back of my knee. At first, I thought it was nothing and went on to roll the pins and needles out of my ankle and get on with my day. As the days went on, however, the pain started to spread – crawling up my thigh and down my calf, seemingly at random. I could still walk and carry out exercises, but if I sat down for too long or slept in the same position for a while, I would wake up with gritted teeth and a fresh burning ache in my leg. Eventually, after my health anxiety had convinced me it was a terminal blood clot and I was minutes away from death, I popped in to see my GP.

It turns out, I didn’t have a deadly blood clot (although that was suspected) – I had simply pulled a muscle in my thigh from sitting in one position at my desk for too long. Not only was I considerably embarrassed by my own laziness, but I was also annoyed at myself. I’d failed my own body and now I had to suffer through pain and discomfort and ice packs and stretches due to my own reluctance to move, whilst still doing my job at my desk.

Obviously, there’s a larger problem here, in that the standard 9-5 office job is incredibly dependant on millions of humans sitting in their desk chairs for hours and hours on end with minimal breaks. Our bodies are morphing and evolving into hunched versions of themselves, our fingers slowly curling into keyboard claws and our spines bending unhappily over laptops. It’s a slow and unhealthy process and honestly, it terrifies me just how easy it is to suffer injuries from stillness.

But what can we do about it? Our work still needs to be completed, standing desks can be expensive and all of the lunchtime walks in the world won’t save us from 7 hours of bent necks and eye strain. Physiotherapy isn’t cheap and there isn’t a soul out there willing to ask their boss for a deep tissue calf massage at work.

So in today’s post, I want to explore some of the ‘at work’ and ‘at home’ exercises you can do at your desk, under your desk and around your workspace – whether you’re in the office or working from home.

Digital Reminders

Firstly, it’s important to understand and identify just what is stopping up from getting up, stretching and doing exercises throughout the working day. Perhaps we have too many meetings in the day to allow ourselves a physical break? Maybe our deadlines always pile up on the same day and it feels like every second working counts? Perhaps we’re just too comfy in our desk chairs and can’t find the motivation to stand?

It’s time to use your digital workspace to your advantage and install some essential kits to help you take breaks and stretch your body throughout the working day. Currently, I use a programme called Time Out (available for Mac users) which physically blacks out my screen for personalised breaks at times I manually set. For example, I’ve set my timers to give me a screen break for ten seconds every half an hour, allowing me to rest my eyes, and a ten-minute break every two hours to get up and move. During these ten minutes, I can’t touch anything on my computer, can’t play music or watch a Youtube video. I literally have to get up and walk around just to stop myself from going mad with boredom, and more often than not I’ll find myself drifting into the kitchen and grabbing some fruit or water to help break up the time.

If I’m feeling stiff, I’ll use the ten minutes to flex and stretch my muscles or roll out any kinks in my back and neck. I’ll walk a couple of laps around my flat, casually tidying and picking things up as I go or check in with my boyfriend about his day. It’s a great opportunity for my brain to switch off too, to drag my head out of thoughts of unread emails, social posts and blog posts for a while and back into the real world.

In my professional space, however, I’ve installed an app on Slack called CoDo which sets hourly reminders for my whole team to stand up and stretch, and to log their stretches in a scoreboard. Whilst it can be a little strange to suddenly see the whole office suddenly stand up and start waving their arms around, there is something incredibly satisfying about being able to check in with CoDo and count my exercises throughout the week.

Under the Desk

It can’t be denied that our posture is vital to keeping our bodies healthy and strong, even when we’re working at our desks. But maintaining a straight back and flat feet while losing ourselves in our work is an almost impossible feat for many. So try to re-arrange your space to better aid your subconscious into a better pose:

  • Elevate your computer screen so it sits a little higher than your natural eyeline. This will naturally encourage you to lift your head and straighten your neck to see it.
  • Move your keyboard further away from your hands, to encourage your elbows to rest on the table, keeping your arms flat against the desk.
  • Pull your desk chair as close to the desk as possible, and make sure you can feel either the back of your chair or a solid cushion behind you to straighten your spine.
  • If you can, invest in a seperate keyboard and screen, rather than a laptop – as laptops often require a hunched posture to use.
  • Set yourself a reminder to relax your muscles. As we work, our bodies can react to certain stressors and our muscles can tense up without us even realising it. If we start to feel stressed by something on our screens, such as a worrying message from our boss, a piece of work we’re worried about or a calendar invite we don’t want to accept, our legs, ankles and feet can clench automatically in response.
  • Try to find a way of keeping your feet on the floor, rather than crossed over each other or up on your seat. This could mean wearing heavier shoes while you work, placing a cushion or step on the floor to keep them there or even tying your laces to the legs of the desk to keep them grounded.
  • Make sure your vision and the area around your screen is clear. Something as small as a speck on your glasses or a strand of hair over your eyes can cause your body to naturally tilt forward to try and see the screen better, creating a naturally hunched posture.

Whilst you’re sitting at your desk, there are also small exercises you can do to help keep your blood flowing and your muscles working. If an under-desk cycling machine doesn’t take your fancy, you can try some in-air cycling, pedalling your feet for at least a minute and making sure you tilt your toes and ankles as you go.

You can also try exercises for your calves and knees too, by completing a series of sitting toe lifts under your desk, stretching and bending your legs in front of you, and moving your knees in circular motions back and forth for two minutes.

Around Your Desk

Once you’ve given yourself a little stretching break, the first thing to do is take a little walk around your workspace. This will help to get the blood flowing back into your muscles, alleviate any pins and needles and raise your heartbeat a little, ready to stretch.

Then carry out the following exercises:

  • Raise your hands high up above your head and lift up onto your tiptoes. Come back down again to touch your toes.
  • Lift each leg up behind you and pin it to your bum. Then lean forward, reaching one hand out in front of you. Return gently to the ground.
  • Spread your arms out either sides of you, and stretch your fingers as far as they will go. Gradually bring them round in front of you and back out again.
  • Gently tip your head onto one shoulder and then the other. Then lift your chin up to the sky and drop it down onto your chest.
  • Twist your waist, setting your arms at chest height, one way and then the other.
  • Close your eyes and take three long, deep breaths.
  • Unclench your jaw and circle it around twice.
  • Move your shoulders up to your ears and down again.
  • Return to your seat.

These are just simple stretches you can do with limited space and time, however, if you want to invest more into your daily stretches, you can incorporate some more vigorous yoga or pilates moves or some high energy movements too.

Re-training Your Brain

If like me, even the thought of all these stretches is making you tired, then it’s also important to start training your brain to crave movement and exercise too. If you know you’re going to be sitting for an extended length of time, try to set up as many excuses to move as possible (without upsetting any deskmates in the process). For example:

  • Leaving your phone on the other side of your room or office
  • Making a snack or hot drink
  • Leaving your notebook or pen in another room
  • Set up your playlist of music on your phone or external device and then leave it far away – forcing you to stand up and move if you want to change a song
  • Asking any colleagues or deskmates to discuss things standing or in a different location
  • Making a reminder for yourself to go to your pet or to play with them for at least ten minutes at a certain time
  • Make sure any cardigans, jumpers or socks are in a different location to you
  • Set yourself small chores to do throughout the day, such as wiping down a surface, tidying a room, clearing a desk or emptying a bin.

You can even try rewarding yourself every time you stand up. Place a bag of your favourite sweets or snacks in a different room and allow yourself a treat every time you stand up to get one. Or try to collaborate with others in your office to carry out these exercises as a team effort, promising a treat at the end of the day for the employee who moves the most.

Motivation and energy don’t come naturally to everyone, so don’t feel bad if your body doesn’t itch to move throughout the day. There are plenty of ways to encourage your body to stand and stretch, even if it takes a little digital encouragement and treat training!

Thank you for reading this week’s blog post. If you have any questions about freelancing (or desk-based exercises) make sure you drop me an email at [email protected] for more advice!