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How to Outsmart a Desk Job

sitting work Apr 20, 2016

“Sitting is the new smoking!” I’m sure that you have heard this line recently, and research shows us how this may be true:

  • Frequent sitting is linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer and mortality. This still applies to individuals engaging in regular moderate to vigorous physical activity, but to a lesser degree.1,2
  • There is evidence of declining lipid profiles and increased plasma glucose levels after one extended sedentary bout.3,4
  • A study found that office workers averaged 10.6 hours of sitting and just over 9600 steps per day.  The kicker is that on the weekends, the averages were nearly identical!1

What conclusions can we draw from this?  Sit less, move more.  You may be thinking, “sure but I work out 5-6 times each week!”  Let’s do the math: Five 2-hour workouts every week is 10 hours of physical activity in a 168 hours week.  That means less than 6% of your week is exercise.  Is the other 94% spent sitting and sleeping?

Driving to work, sitting at the desk, driving home, sitting down for dinner, sitting down to catch up on your favorite TV show, etc.  Do you see where this is going?  

More apparent effects of sitting are mobility issues that stem from maintaining hip and knee flexion, rounded shoulders and lazy abdominals throughout most of the day. For many, sitting in unavoidable so it is important to adjust how you are sitting.

Is your work space set up for comfort and ideal positioning?

Sit down in your desk chair and place your hands on the keyboard. Are you sitting up straight?  Your torso should be stacked on top of your sit bones (pelvis). The seat and back rest angle can influence this considerably.  If your seat slopes backward, this position will be tough to maintain.  Keeping it horizontal or even slightly tipped forward will put you in a better position.

Notice how your head and neck are positioned: is your chin jutted out in front of your chest?  If so, this is usually due to one of two things: poor posture (even though I told you to sit up straight!) or the computer screen being positioned too high.  Ideally, the screen should be in the upper 1/3 of your field of vision while looking straight ahead.

Next, take note of your arm position: Are your shoulders relaxed and elbows in a comfortable position?  Ideally, your elbows should be bent and slightly in front of your hips. You want to avoid being too far from you keyboard and reaching forward. Also, using the arm rests can decrease the load on your back.   Finally, your wrists should remain in neutral, avoiding extension.  Overly extended wrists are often seen when a keyboard is on a tilt but the wrists are rested at the base of the keys. 

​If you use the phone often, consider purchasing a headset.  Continuing to hold the phone between your ear and shoulder will lead to neck and shoulder issues quickly. 


Standing desks are ideal for health and ergonomics.  Understandably, it is not feasible for every work space to have this based on cost and space but why not ask?  The worst your boss could say is no!

​It is important to continue moving throughout the day.  Some suggestions to help combat sitting:

Wiggle.  If you are working on a task that requires extended sitting periods, I encourage you to fidget. Start by leaning against the back rest with your feet planted on the ground below your knees.  In a few minutes, change position by sitting on the edge of the chair and engaging your core to maintain the upright position. Drop your feet behind you so that your knees are pointing forward and the balls of your feet are on the ground.  This position can provide a nice stretch to your tight calf muscles.

Walk.  Take a short break every fifteen to twenty minutes to walk a lap in the hallway.  Set a timer! Take conference calls on your mobile and walk while they talk.

Leisure Time.  Be cognizant when choosing weekend or free time activities.  Dinner, movies, painting classes are all fun but they are all prolonged periods of sitting!  Try taking a stroll, going bowling, etc.

Mobilize as you work.  Keep a lacrosse ball under your desk and roll out the arch of your foot as you work.  You can even find a tight spot in the hamstrings and pin the ball between your leg and the chair.  Keep the pressure until you feel that spot relax.  At regular intervals roll your shoulders back in circles, lace your fingers together and reach your arms to the ceiling.

Rest in other ways.  If you are able to stand at work, or during leisure time, it is perfectly acceptable to lean.  Similarly, propping one foot (think Captain Morgan pose) can decrease the load on your lumbar spine in standing posture. If you decide to sit when you get home, try different lounging positions. Cross-legged sitting stretches various hip muscles and allows you to maintain the lumbar curve better than most positions.  Also, while playing with the kids or working at home, try lying on your stomach and propping on your elbows.  This provides a nice stretch to the hip flexors that have been shortened all day while sitting.

​Thanks for reading,

     Dr. Jackie, PT, DPT, CSCS


Smith L et al. Weekday and weekend patterns of objectively measured sitting, standing and stepping in a sample of office-based workers: the active buildings study. BMC Public Health (2015) 15:9.

Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Salmon J, et al. Breaks in sedentary time: beneficial associations with metabolic risk. Diabetes Care 2008;31:661–6.

Healy GN, Dunstan DW, Salmon J, et al. Objectively measured light-intensity physical activity is independently associated with 2-h plasma glucose. Diabetes Care 2007;30:1384–9.

Bey L, Hamilton MT. Suppression of skeletal muscle lipoprotein lipase activity during physical inactivity: a molecular reason to maintain daily low-intensity activity. J Physiol. 2003;551(Pt 2): 673–82.

Elements of Ergonomic Programs, A primer based on workspace evaluations of musculoskeletal disorders.  Cohen AL, Gjessing CC, Fine LJ, Bernard BP, McGlothlin JD. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC and Prevention, NIOSH, March 1997, 16-33,91,92,99.


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