5 Exercises to Combat Bad Sitting Posture at the Desk

Written by Student Kinesiologist Janice Leung

“Sitting is the new smoking.”

This probably isn’t the first time that you’ve heard that statement. It’s been a recent growing message in the health industry. Even with the rise of standing desks that are becoming more and more popular for office workers, a big barrier is the hefty price. Matt Gereghty of areyouergo.com runs a blog all about ergonomics and sitting. He has a blog post that shows some innovative ways to use home furniture to create a makeshift standing desk. But if you don’t work at home, and you’re looking for other ways to combat bad sitting posture, keep reading.

It’s unfortunate, but the reality is that for some of us, whether we are students or employees whose jobs involve seated work for long hours, we sit. A lot. Add in the time spent sitting in the car, on the bus, at meals, at home, and the truth is there. We sit. A lot.

Even though I work in the healthcare industry and know fully well how sitting posture can have negative impact on health, whether it’s metabolic, cardiovascular or musculoskeletal, I too, sit in terrible postures. Sadly, I confess that I’ve done many marathon study sessions with friends and we all turn into different variations of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’ve seen my friends, hour by hour, cringe closer and closer to their laptop screen until they’ve become the Hunchback. Their upper back is rounded and their neck is stuck far more forward than it ever should be. If you spend long hours sitting and working at the desk where stress builds up and fatigue sets in, it gets easy to throw proper posture out the window because getting your work done is all that matters. But over time, this can lead to chronic pain and quite disabling injuries.

So the question remains, what can you do?

The answer is simple. The 5 exercises below can relieve chest tightness, strengthen muscles to improve posture and help you look more like a superhero and less like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

 

1. Towel Lying

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Why: After trying this for the first time, it’s more like, why not? Sitting and working at the desk for hours easily tightens muscles through the chest and shoulders. This simple exercise is the antidote for reversing all the wound up muscles.

How: 

  • Lie on a foam roller (it can be a half foam roller or tightly wound up yoga mat which will decrease the amount of stretch due to decreased leverage) and make sure to align yourself so you make contact with the back of your head and tail bone on the foam roller.
  • Keep your feet on the floor and knees bent. Open your arms out in a “T” shape.
  • You can bring your arms lower if it’s too intense of a stretch. Or, start to bend your elbows to 90 degrees to increase the intensity and modify the angles of the stretch.
  • You can play around with the amount of bend in your elbows and where you place your elbows in relation to your shoulders, as long as you feel a gentle stretch without pain.
  • Relax, focus on your breathing and hold for 1-5 minutes.

 

2. Chin Tucks

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Why: Yes, you’re making a double chin. But if reducing neck pain is a priority of yours, I guarantee that it’ll be worth it. Performing this exercise activates the deep neck flexors at the front of your neck, while decreasing the tension in your suboccipitals and other muscles behind your neck, which get overstretched when your neck is protruding towards the computer screen. This is a monumental basic exercise that can be incorporated into many other exercises because it helps to keep the cervical spine in check to complete your neutral spine. If you’ve ever heard of “packing the neck” in a deadlift, this is how you do it.

How:

  • Stand tall, roll your shoulders back and bring your shoulder blades back and down, i.e., away from the ears with a slight squeeze between your shoulder blades.
  • Keep your head in a neutral position as you pick a spot straight ahead to focus your eyes on. Pull your chin straight back gently without tilting your head up or down.
  • Hold 2-3 seconds and then relax. You can put two fingers just below your chin to make sure that you’re not tilting your head as you perform the chin tuck.
  • Do 10 repetitions, 2-3 sets. Alternatively, throw in a set throughout the day, like when you’re in the car or sitting on the couch.

 

3. Brugger’s Relief Position

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Why: It teaches you to engage the shoulder blades and pull the shoulders back instead of rounding forwards. Having your arms by your side also helps to open the chest up.

How: 

  • Stand tall, roll your shoulders back and bring your shoulder blades back and down, i.e., away from the ears with a slight squeeze between your shoulder blades.
  • Have your arms by your sides with palms facing forward.
  • Squeeze between your shoulder blades, like you’re squeezing a pencil between them, without raising your shoulders towards your ears.
  • Hold for 2-3 seconds and then return to the starting position.
  • Do 10 repetitions, 2-3 sets. Alternatively, throw in a set every hour or so while sitting. Once you get comfortable, incorporate the chin tuck at the start of each repetition.

 

4. Dowel Hip Hinge

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Why: Call me a mad scientist, but even though you’re not deadlifting a heavy barbell at your desk, I believe that there’s merit to practicing your hip hinge for improving desk posture. If you watch Dr. Kelly Starrett, the creator of MobilityWod, he talks about setting up for desk work or even texting just like you would for a deadlift. You definitely (or hopefully) won’t be bent over your work space as in the ending position picture. But the idea is that when you have to lean forward while sitting at the desk, e.g., for writing, you lean from the hips while maintaining a neutral spine and not from the upper back or neck.  This exercise will give you more awareness of your posture from the waist up.

How:

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart and a slight bend in the knees.
  • Hold a dowel (or broomstick) behind your back with one hand above the head with palm facing forward and the other hand at your lower back with palm facing backward.
  • You should feel 3 points of contact with your head, upper back and tail bone area.
  • Maintain this neutral spine position as you hinge at your hips by pushing your hips back and lowering your chest towards the ground. Go as far as comfortable, feeling a stretch through the hamstrings.
  • Squeeze your glutes to return to the starting position. If you’re having trouble maintaining contact with the dowel, make sure to keep your chin tucked (aha! What a keeper that exercise is) and shoulders pulled back.
  • Do 10 repetitions, 2-3 sets.

 

5. Shoulder W

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Why: When you’re sitting at the desk, it’s very easy to hike up your shoulders and overuse the upper trapezius muscles in addition to rounding the upper back. This exercise strengthens the external rotators of the rotator cuff muscles in addition to activating more of the lower trapezius muscles rather than the dominant upper trapezius muscles. This exercise also reinforces good shoulder blade positioning. You can watch Physiotherapist Mike Reinold demonstrate this exercise.

How:

  • Start by rolling your shoulders back to make sure that you’re in a good starting position.
  • Flex your elbows at 90 degrees and hold a resistance band at about shoulder width apart with your thumbs up. Bring your hands up slightly so your forearms are not parallel with the ground.
  • Pull the band apart, forming a “W” shape from hand to hand.
  • Hold for a 1-2 seconds, and then return to starting position.
  • Do 10 repetitions, 2-3 sets.

 

Extra Tips

Take very short active breaks!

One of my favourite professors is the only professor in the Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology department to get the class up for stretch breaks every half hour during our lectures. He encourages it even when we write our 3 hour final exams. If you decide to do this, the stretch breaks don’t have to be long. They can be as short as 30 seconds to 1-2 minutes just to shake things out and get blood flowing through stagnant muscles. If you want to get fancy, you can check out Bret Contreras’ article and slyly incorporate the glute squeeze or crucifix stretch without attracting too much unwanted attention. Recent research has actually showed that taking brief 2 minute walks every hour decreases the risk of premature death by 33%!

Make a to-do list!

Like most busy people, I find excuses not to put effort in doing extra postural exercises when working for long hours at the desk is already taxing enough. But it might help to keep a note posted somewhere visible in your work area with a short list of some of these exercises or other stretches. When you see the list, you’ll be cued to remember that you should do these things. Once you start doing them more often, they’ll become routine. And once you reap the benefits from them, it’ll be easy to turn them into habits.

 

If you can begin incorporating these exercises into your daily routine, you’ll be able to decrease any aches or pain from sitting at the desk for too long. Remember, before starting any exercise program, always make sure to consult with your healthcare professional.

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