Working out at work

Some exercises can ease the strain on the body of sitting at a desk all day

Health & Fitness

November 02, 2003|By Martha Thomas | Martha Thomas,Special to the Sun

Helen Rea can sit at her desk all day -- working on the computer or using the telephone -- without getting stiff. Her back is straight, her knees are bent at the optimum 90-degree angle and her shoulders are not slouched forward.

The Silver Spring resident, who manages the accounting for her husband's graphic design firm, sits on an exercise ball, which she says improves her balance and her strength.

"There's constant movement" sitting on the oversized plastic ball, she says.

If you sit at a desk all day in front of a computer, or have some other kind of sedentary job, there are ways to stay flexible, and even exercise, in the workplace. In fact, office fitness -- "deskercize," as it is known in some circles -- should be a regular part of the workday, according to health experts.

"Office fitness is very important," says Zachary Koutsandreas, vice president of Ergoworks Consulting, a Gaithersburg ergonomics firm. "If you are on the computer all day, it is critical that you stretch and loosen your arms and fingers before and during work."

Office fitness is in part about ergonomics -- preventing injury with proper alignment and stretches to counteract repetitive motions or static positions. But it's also a way of ensuring that those who sit at their desk all day don't counteract the hard work they put in at the gym.

"Don't sit in a chair for two hours at a time," Koutsandreas advises. "Get up and move every 30 to 40 minutes." He recommends desk exercises, including shoulder and neck rolls, and hand stretches.

Maryland's Council on Physical Fitness recently updated a poster showing a variety of exercises designed for the workplace. Judy Wilson, the council's acting director, says, "Stretching is very important; it helps with your posture, and can make a big difference in your comfort at work."

The exercises are simple and require no equipment. There are hand and wrist stretches, chair push-ups, calf stretches and chest presses, many of which can be done using your desk as a support.

Brenda Loube, president of Corporate Fitness Works, a Maryland company that operates health clubs in corporate settings and advises companies about employee fitness, points out that simple exercises done at work can reduce stress and prevent injury.

"The concept of deskercise boils down to ergonomics," Loube says. "The goal is to make sure that you are aligned perfectly to prevent stress on joints and muscles."

She also recommends taking frequent breaks throughout the day to stretch or to walk. Even those who are physically fit need to follow these guidelines. "Anyone who sits in the same position over time is going to have problems," Loube believes.

While office exercise won't lead to cardiovascular fitness, notes Steven Horwitz, chair of the Maryland Council on Physical Fitness, "you can definitely get stronger if you put in the time."

Horwitz, a chiropractor who practices in Bethesda and Silver Spring, suggests stopping for five minutes every hour or so for a mini strength-training break: "Do knee bends at 10, desk pushups at noon and shoulder presses with a stack of books at 3."

Your body "isn't happy" when you sit for long hours, Horwitz says: "When people sit, they put 40 percent more stress on the disks in their back than when standing," and "if you're leaning forward, it's 80 percent more."

Office equipment -- such as telephone headsets, wrist pillows for computer keyboards and ergonomically correct chairs -- can help counteract pain and prevent injury, say the experts, but some responsibility also lies with the employee.

"You can have the best chair in the world," said Ergoworks' Koutsandreas, "but if you don't stop and take rest and exercise breaks, you are going to have low back problems."

Exercises to try

The Maryland Council on Physical Fitness recently revised a poster detailing exercises designed for the workplace. For a free copy of the poster, contact the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, at 410-767-5046, or visit the Web site / cpf.

The council warns that "individuals with chronic medical problems, high blood pressure or back and shoulder pain should consult their physician prior to performing any office exercises."

Here are a few examples from the poster:

Chest press: Strengthens upper body

* Hands on desk at arms length, shoulder-width apart. Bend knees slightly, keep head straight, and buttocks tucked. Bend elbows until chest is a few inches from the desk, return to starting position.

Calf stretch: Stretches back of leg and calf

* Lean against wall, bend one leg forward and extend the other leg back with knee slightly bent, heel on the floor. Hold the stretch. Repeat on the other side.

Hand and wrist exercise: Stretches forearm

* Straighten your arm in front of you. Bend your wrist back so that your fingers point toward the ceiling. With your other hand, gently pull your fingers, bending your wrist back a little further. Repeat on the other side.

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