Most of us spend the majority of our days stuck in front of our computers. And those long, stationary hours at our desks can wreak havoc on our neck, back, or shoulders. We usually blame the pain and stiffness on poor posture. But Abby Halpin, DPT, a physical therapist and the owner of Forte Performance and Physical Therapy, says that it’s often less about having bad posture and more about how long you’re in the same position with that posture.
“Sitting or standing in one place or one position for a full day of work means the same muscle groups are active all day every day and experience fatigue,” she says. Spending weeks, months, or years sitting the same way at the same desk can cause the tissues involved in maintaining that position to become hypersensitive. “The nerve receptors alert your brain to potential danger much more quickly and intensely, which produces an increasing pain experience or a guarding response, stiffening the muscles around the area to protect you,” she says.
Even if you do not necessarily have pain, Dr. Halpin says stiffness can also be indicative of an issue. “Stiffness is due to muscles and joints being required to operate at the same length and tension all of the time, which reduces the range of motion where they are effective,” she explains.
Ultimately, Dr. Halpin says “good” or “bad” posture is very hard to define–and not as important as you might think. What’s much more critical is that do everything you can to switch up your body position throughout the day.
One of the best ways to mix things up is to take a short break for a few mobility exercises. Dr. Halpin points out that this not only directly alleviates some of the tension in the muscles and joints, but also the very act of changing the posture you’ve been holding all day gives your body a chance to relax. “Both stretching and mobility work allows load to be transferred to different areas of the body,” she says.
Dr. Halpin walked us through some easy desk exercises to mobilize your back, neck, and shoulders to alleviate pain.
“This movement gives the joints, muscles, nerves, and more around your spine a chance to feel each end of the spectrum of your range of motion,” says Dr. Halpin. “This increases the variety of movement around the spine and allows for a better sense of where the middle of that range is, which is usually where the spine feels the least load.”
While sitting with feet flat on the floor, place your hands on your desk. Exhale while you lightly press your hands down into the countertop and round your back. Inhale and straighten up, letting your chest rise up and forward as you reach the crown of your head towards the ceiling. Repeat five to 10 times.
Dr. Halpin says that reaching all the way up overhead can increase shoulder mobility and prevent stiffness.
Start in a seated position with your elbows bent down at your sides and your hands up next to your shoulders. Exhale as you reach your arms straight up overhead. Inhale as you lower your arms back down. Repeat five to 10 times. Then, reverse the breathing pattern, inhaling as you reach up, and exhaling as you bring your arms back down.
Dr. Halpin says that by changing the breathing pattern while you reach, you increase the mobility between the ribs on all sides of your trunk.
Dr. Halpin says this exercise is a good primer for getting your abdominals engaged, and it creates space between the ribs in your back (which is prone to compressive loads while sitting) to better accommodate deep breaths.
Start in a seated position with your feet flat on the floor. Round your back and place your forearms on your thighs. Exhale completely as you press your forearms down into your thighs. Hold that pressure into your thighs as you inhale, filling up the back half of your rib cage. Repeat this for four breaths.
Hug and reach
Dr. Halpin says that this helps offset the extreme bias towards forward-facing movements when you are at the desk by introducing side-to-side movement.
Give yourself a hug by crossing both arms across your body and wrapping your hands around you as far as you can. Then, reach straight out to the sides, stretching your fingers away from you. Repeat five to 10 times.
Knee scissor slides
“This movement gives your spine a bit of a twist and offers a change-up to the parts of your pelvis on which you typically sit,” says Dr. Halpin.
While sitting with your feet flat on the floor, put a water bottle or ball between your knees. Without letting your shoulders twist, shift one knee and hip backward and the opposite forward, then switch, rolling the bottle back and forth with your knees.
This exercise mobilizes the spine and shoulders by rotating the trunk.
While seated, punch one hand forward and then the other, letting your spine twist. Do five to 10 punches per side.
Want to get out of your chair? Try this 12-minute mobility workout from trainer Traci Copeland: