The fitness world loves lists: 10 Best Biceps Builders, 9 Best Fat-Burning Exercises, 8 Best Supplements, 7 Best Superfoods, and so on. Some of this advice is common sense, and some is just nonsense. But most of this advice is about things you can do in the gym or at home. What about exercises you can do in the workplace to improve your quality of life?
If this article were about gym exercises, we would talk about hardcore lifts such as the deadlift, military press, or chin-ups. But this is about movements you can do at work, without any special equipment, without changing your clothes, and perform in a few minutes without anyone – well, at least not your boss –noticing you doing them.
This requirement, of course, leaves out a lot of exercises. Telling you to lie on the floor and do the splits or a downward dog-plank sequence is a bit impractical. And while Tai Chi is often practiced in the workplace in groups in many countries, chances are you will look pretty silly doing the “White Crane Spreads Wings” near the water cooler.
OK, the title of this article promises you three critical exercises, and it will deliver. But by no means do they represent a total workout program, and it’s perfectly fine to substitute them with those you find more effective. But the bottom line is that these exercises will address some of the structural imbalances that can develop during working hours.
The basic concept of corrective exercise is to stretch muscles that are tight and strengthen those that are weak. If you want to learn more, one of the classic physical medicine references on corrective exercise is Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain by Kendall, McCreary, and Provance. Another great resource is the work of Dr. Vladimir Yanda, a physical medicine pioneer who addressed common postural issues that he described as “upper cross syndrome” and “lower cross syndrome.”
With that background, here are three workplace exercises for your consideration:
Critical Movement #1: Standing Wall Stretch. Typing, reading, and using all our fancy electronic gizmos can create tightness in the chest and anterior (front) shoulder muscles, contributing to a round-shouldered posture. Here is a simple exercise to address this issue:
Position yourself just in front of a doorframe. With your palms facing away from you, place your hands on each side of the frame, about shoulder height. Look straight ahead and keep your chest up. Begin the stretch by pushing yourself forward until you feel a comfortable stretch across the chest; hold for 20-30 seconds. Rest for a few seconds. Now move your hands up a few inches (about level with the middle of your head); push forward and hold for 20-30 seconds. Rest. Finally, move your hands up a few more inches until they are just above the level of your head; push forward and hold for 20-30 seconds.
Critical Movement #2: Seated Glute Stretch. Prolonged sitting can often cause tightness in the glutes that can adversely affect posture and cause lower back pain. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a simple glute stretch you can perform while sitting at your desk.
Sit towards the front of a sturdy chair. Pull your right ankle up and rest it on the knee of the opposite leg. Place your right hand on your right knee. Push the knee down, trying to get it close to being parallel with the floor, and then lean forward, keeping your chest up (so that you are bending from the hips, not flexing the spine). Hold for 20-30 seconds, then repeat for the other side.
Often you’ll find with this stretch that one glute is tighter than the other. To create balance, stretch the tightest side first, then the other side, and then the tighter side one more time.
Critical Movement #3: Hip Flexor Stretch from Split. Yes, it’s a good idea to stretch the hamstrings. But if your lower back and hamstrings are tight, it’s often due to tightness in muscles that flex the hip, specifically one called the psoas. If this muscle is tight, it can rotate the pelvis forward and create excess tension in the hamstrings and lower back. Here’s what to do.
Position yourself alongside a chair (or bench). Assume a split position with the leg closest to the chair forward and the other one back; your front knee should be at a 90-degree angle. Place your hand closest to the chair on top of it to brace yourself, then lift the knee of your trailing leg off the floor slightly. This is the start position.
Perform this movement by pulling your pelvis under (i.e., suck in your gut), then extend your free hand over your head; move the raised arm towards the chair to increase the stretch. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then repeat for the other side. When this variation becomes comfortable, extend both hands overhead (and even hold a ruler to help your alignment).
As with the glute stretch, often you’ll find with this stretch that one side will be tighter than the other. If this is the case, stretch the tightest side first, then the other side, and then the tighter side one more time.
Again, don’t get married to these exercises – there are many variations of these movements you may like better, plus it’s always a good idea to frequently change your stretches to ensure optimal range of motion. And feel free to add any exercises for areas of your body that have become especially tight.
Even if you do daily workouts at a gym, it won’t hurt to take a few minutes out of your workday to perform a few stretches such as those described here to keep your muscles long, loose, and healthy.