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6 tricks to help you stay strong and focused at your desk

Colin By Colin Groundwater

Men in an office sitting on exercise balls

It can be hard to feel your best in the office. Sitting all day, back hunched over, shoulders tense — no wonder your mind tends to wander. According to the American Heart Association, sitting all day can increase your risk of all sorts of health problems, from diabetes to heart disease. But some simple adjustments can lead to meaningful changes in health and performance in and out of work. Here are six tricks you can perform right at your desk to remedy “tech neck” and other hazards of office life:

1. Stretch out

Simple stretches can help relieve stiffness and discomfort. Try spinal twists and other basic yoga poses. “These types of exercises are helpful because they generate blood flow, increase muscle strength, flexibility and range of motion,” says Aetna wellness coach Ricky Moore. “Not to mention these activities are mentally stimulating.”

2. Move your legs

If stretching isn’t enough, try something that requires a bit more exertion, like leg lifts under your desk. Sit upright in your chair with your chest out and your shoulders down, then straighten one leg in front of you and hold it there for ten seconds. Alternating legs, repeat as many times as you can to sneak in a quick ab workout.

3. Change up your seating

Ergonomics has many definitions, but Aetna ergonomics expert Charlene Tardif defines it as “the science of fitting the work to the worker.” By adjusting your workspace and habits to match your body type and job function, you’ll enhance your productivity and reduce your risk of injury.

Moore suggests temporarily replacing your chair with an exercise ball, also called a balance or stability ball. Sitting on one of these large rubbery spheres engages your core, allowing you to passively work out while you’re working on a project. “Stronger ab muscles protect the lower back and promote better posture,” Moore says.

Just make sure to select the right size ball for your height and office space. “You might feel that a standard ball is not tall enough for you to comfortably reach your desktop,” Moore says. If you’re 5′ to 5′7″ tall, a 55-centimeter ball should fit the bill. If you’re over 5’8”, go for a 65cm ball.

Tardif adds that merely making an effort to correct your posture can also reduce stress on your back. “If you are working on a computer, sit back in your chair and place lumbar support where you need it,” she explains.

4. Rearrange your desk

Tardif recommends placing objects you use frequently in a “near reach zone,” where they are easily accessible; arrange objects you use infrequently around the edges. Try to avoid placing everything you need near your dominant hand, which increases repetitive stress on that side. Instead, arrange objects on both sides of your desk to force yourself to move in different ways.

If you’re right handed, Tardif says, you might even try plugging your mouse into the left side of your keyboard and using your left hand to “balance the workload.” Over time, these small changes can have a surprising impact.

5. Take microbreaks

Many people assume any kind of break involves leaving your desk for 10-20 minutes. Tardif and other ergonomists suggest integrating microbreaks of 30-60 seconds into your workflow every 20-30 minutes, “to allow muscles used at work to relax, regain blood flow and refresh.”

6. Breathe deep

“Deep breathing sounds simple,” says Moore, but few people actually do it properly. The key is to breathe from the diaphragm, a large domed muscle at the base of your lungs. You can practice this by placing a hand on your stomach and a hand on your chest. Then take a few deep breaths. You want the air you inhale to fill out your abdomen rather than your upper chest; doing so fills your lungs to capacity.

“Learning to breathe properly can positively affect one’s health. Studies show that practicing breathing techniques helps to properly balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body,” says Moore. He adds that deep breathing exercises have been shown to improve focus and concentration, increase relaxation, even lower blood pressure and increase metabolism.

Of course, not everything can be done from your desk. There are many other ways to stay fit and focused in the office, from taking short walks to practicing focus exercises with your team. (Read more about how to de-stress in 10 minutes or less.) The thing to remember is that when you are stuck in your chair, you can still find ways to incorporate wellness into your day.

About the author

Colin Groundwater is a writer from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. He’s training to run a half-marathon.