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Pain-Preventing Stretches to Do at Work

Ah, desk jobs. True, they’re temperature-controlled and don’t get you too dirty, but they can also be a big source of aches, such as back pain and neck pain. Sitting in one place for hours at a time often leads to a tight neck, shoulders, back, and more, says Maureen McBeth, PT, a physical therapist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Our bodies are made to move,” says McBeth. “We even move in our sleep.”

To prevent a sedentary job from causing you chronic pain, McBeth says, the first step is good ergonomics — the science of designing a work environment that promotes function and minimizes the chance of injury. For example, desk workers should sit in a chair that supports their lower back, with the top of their computer monitor at eye level, about an arm’s length away. Shorter people whose legs dangle off the floor while sitting should get a footrest for extra support. “Your hamstrings can get tight when your legs are just dangling there,” McBeth says.

Though ergonomics can head off a lot of desk-job-induced pain, you can also give yourself some extra insurance with these simple stretches to do at work.

Stand up. This is probably one of the easiest “stretches” to do at your desk. The simple act of rising from your seat improves blood circulation and works your body’s biggest muscles. Standing also relieves the chair-induced pressure on your hip flexors and gluteal muscles. “The hip flexors actually attach from the femur and go up the hip bone and the spine, which is why they affect the back,” McBeth says.

Go on tiptoes. Once you’re standing, continue to promote blood flow by rising up on your toes and lowering all the way back onto your heels two or three times. This move also stretches the calf muscle and Achilles tendon, which can both become painful if too tight.

Move your neck. This can be done either seated or standing. Gently stretch your neck from side to side a couple of times, then up and down. Finally, turn your head left and then right. This exercise prevents neck pain by working the upper trapezius muscles along the back of your neck and can also help stretch the scalene muscles that run down the sides of your neck.

Arch up. If you spend much of the day slumping forward over your desk, find some relief from back pain by practicing the “cow” portion of the classic cat-cow stretch found in many yoga routines. To perform this move, sit and inhale, then arch your chest forward, squeezing the rhomboids, which are the muscles between the shoulder blades. Repeat two or three times.

“I would avoid doing the ‘cat’ part of that posture, where you curl the spine looking like a scared/angry cat, since that is an exaggerated version of what you’re probably doing at your desk all day,” says Alexandra Pony, a certified yoga instructor in San Francisco.

Be lean. Give the sides of your body some attention by engaging your core muscles and keeping your spine straight. Then, lift your left arm up and over your head, gently leaning to the right. Support yourself with your right forearm on the arm of your chair, if necessary. Repeat on the other side.

Head for the door. Commandeer a (seldom-traveled) doorway in your office and hold onto the frame, then lean forward through it, keeping your arms back, until you feel a stretch. Hold for two to three deep breaths. This move stretches the pectoralis muscle on the chest. Much like the seated-cow stretch, it can provide some relief to the back muscles that become strained by hunching forward. “This counteracts the muscles on the back of the body like the rhomboids and the latissimus dorsi,” McBeth says.

Taking a few minutes every day for stretches to do at your desk will make you less pained and happier at work and at play.


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