“I don’t have time to exercise. I can’t do it at the office, and I’ll look like an idiot if I do.”
I was wrong.
Office exercises don’t have to be complicated, long, or hard to do. You don’t even need any special equipment, and most can even be performed sitting down.
That’s something I wish I’d known before working my hands until they nearly broke.
“Approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity” – World Health Organization, Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health
This isn’t a post about getting buff while at your office. It’s a guide from personal experience on how to limit the damage that office work does to your body in the easiest and most convenient way possible.
To that end, you’ll learn:
- How to exercise without hurting yourself
- Office exercises for finger, hand, and arm injuries
- Exercises you can do while sitting
- Other for standing or when in your office
- A full workout to stay healthy (without leaving your office)
There’s no “hop on one leg” or “run until your face is purple” here. Instead, you’ll see how to release the strain from day-to-day office work without embarrassing yourself while doing so.
Let’s get stuck in.
How to exercise without hurting yourself
I started exercising to strengthen my hands against the repetitive strain that almost killed my career. However, you need to be just as careful not to injure yourself while doing the exercises.
It’s no good stretching and exercising to avoid injuries and stay healthy if you cause harm by doing it too much or incorrectly. So, let’s go over a few ground rules you should always bear in mind with the following office exercises:
- Stop immediately if you feel pain
- Discomfort and slight strain shows the exercises are doing you some good
- If you’re unsure whether something feels right, stop, relax, and slowly try it again
- If you’re using weights, reduce them after feeling pain to see if the change helps
- Do them as often as you’re comfortable with (but not more than once per hour)
- Soak your hands/forearms in a sink of warm water for 5 minutes before stretches if they feel strained or tight
I’m not a qualified physician or doctor and don’t exercise much myself beyond what I’ll detail here, so I won’t claim to know everything.
However, I do know what it’s like to deal with office-related injuries using exercises and stretches through personal experience. I can’t tell you how to get ripped, but I can show you how to stop office work from causing you harm.
That’s why it’s important to get a feel for these exercises yourself, especially in terms of how much weight you use. I won’t recommend using a lot by any means, but start low and stop or reduce it if you feel like it’s too much.
No matter what anyone else says if it feels wrong don’t do it.
You don’t want to cause yourself further injury.
Beyond those general points, I’d recommend starting with the hand and arm exercises below three times per day. Once before work to limber up, once in your lunch break to relieve stress, and once at the end of the day to help prevent lasting damage.
The warm water is also key.
When I started my physiotherapy course I had already taken a week off work here at Process Street because the pain made it almost unbearable to type. I wanted to see if my hands would get better with rest alone.
They didn’t. In fact, the basic exercises prescribed were painful as hell when I first did them.
A sink full of warm water and 5 minutes beforehand (no pun intended) made all the difference in relaxing my muscles and soothing the ache enough to perform.
Office exercises to prevent finger, hand, and arm injuries
These office exercises not only allowed me to go back to work after fearing I would have to quit; they actively served to heal some of the damage dealt to my hands and arms over the years.
All that from around 30 minutes of small exercises spread over each day.
They’re simple, they’re easy, and they saved my career (without making me look crazy while I do them).
Stretching your hands
The first exercise lasts only 20 seconds in total and helps to stretch your hands in preparation for the others.
That doesn’t mean you should only perform them before doing a full exercise set though. It’s a hand stretch, yes, but it’s also great for relieving pressure on your wrists and combating the general fatigue that writing all day causes.
You don’t need any equipment, and it only needs enough room to extend your arms. It can even be done while sitting at your desk.
- Extend your right arm in front of you, fingers pointing forward
- Put the thumb of your left hand behind the wrist of your right
- Rest your left-hand fingers on the back of your right hand (so that you’ve encased your right hand with your left)
- Flatten your right-hand fingers while keeping them together
- Bend your right hand down towards the floor while keeping your fingers outstretched and your arm straight. Use your left hand to support your wrist and bend your hand down further (stop if it hurts) until you’re pointing at the floor
- Hold for 10 seconds, then release
- Do the same for your left hand
While simple, this worked wonders for getting rid of some of the initial tension in my fingers, hands, and arms, and I still use it to this day very frequently.
If you feel a lot of pressure in your wrist while bending your hands down, try slowly and carefully curling your fingers into a fist. This gives a more complete stretch and helps relieve any remaining tension but is entirely optional and should be avoided if doing so causes pain.
Strengthening your arms
Don’t worry; I’m not going to tell you to start doing bench presses in the middle of the office.
This exercise is instead designed to follow up on the previous stretch to extend (or preserve) the range of movement in your hands and to build up their resistance to general wear and tear.
While you don’t need much room to do this, it does require 1-5 lbs of weight which you can hold in your hand. Although I’d recommend grabbing a cheap weight set like this to test yourself and slowly work up to the 5lb versions, the same effect can be gained with household items like a bottle of water or tinned food.
The amount of weight isn’t terribly important. The benefit comes from having at least some resistance to the movement. Dedicated weights are easier and more comfortable to hold but they’re not necessary.
- Find a flat surface that you can rest a forearm on comfortably while hanging your hand (palm down) over the edge. Make sure that you have room to curl your hand down as far as possible over the edge.
- Holding a weight with your right hand, put your right forearm flat against the surface with your hand hanging over the edge
- Rest your left hand over your right wrist and press down lightly to make sure it doesn’t leave the surface during the exercise
- Keep your elbow grounded on the surface at all times
- From having your hand hovering over the edge (in line with your arm) slowly curl it down as far as possible while holding the weight. Try to get a smooth movement that lasts around 2-3 seconds.
- Raise your hand back up as far as possible, keeping your wrist, forearm, and elbow flat against the surface you’re using. Again, try to have a smooth movement lasting 2-3 seconds.
- Repeat a total of 10 times (up and down = one move) for each arm
If you start to feel a little strain, don’t panic. This shows that you probably needed to do this to combat some work-related strain.
However, if the strain becomes painful then stop immediately and rest. Consider reducing the weight to a more manageable level and/or bathing your hand and arm in warm water to soothe any aches.
That’s the main exercise done but there’s one other action which is best used after the two we’ve already covered…
Releasing wrist pressure
This exercise works wonders for releasing any remaining tension in your hands and wrists. It’s also a great way to limber up in preparation for going back to work.
Unlike the previous exercises, this one can be done with both arms at the same time. There’s no need to use one arm to support the other, so you can cut the time it takes in half by doing both simultaneously.
- Holding your weight, keep your arm to your side and raise your forearm to point in front of you (imagine a T-rex’s arms).
- Twist your hand clockwise as far as it will comfortably go. Again, try for a smooth movement lasting around 2 seconds.
- Hold for a second, then twist them the other way in the same manner (without hurting yourself).
- Repeat 10 times.
Try to keep the back of your hands in line with your arms during the twists. It’s easy to bend your hands up or down during this exercise but that doesn’t allow you to fully stretch your hands and wrists in their twisting motion.
Once again, these can be done as often as you please, so long as they don’t hurt you. I started out doing the full set of three (plus the water warm-up) every hour on the hour to really make some progress, but doing them three times a day is more than enough to stave off injury.
The last set of exercises from heavy personal experience I have are some designed specifically to help those who put their fingers under a lot of stress.
Typing, writing, playing an instrument or most games, punching your PIN, and even basic activities like using your phone all require your fingers to be moving. Add in a healthy dose of strain and pain and suddenly modern life becomes not only annoying and inefficient but even daunting and frightening.
So, after scrambling around Google for a few hours I found a solution which takes next to no time, equipment or space; Hand and Wrist Exercises For Gamers by Dr. Levi Harrison.
Don’t let the name fool you – these simple finger exercises are perfect for anyone concerned about injuries to their hands due to overuse. Their simplicity also makes them perfect to do almost no matter where you are – you can even perform them while on the move.
Treat them in the same way as the previous exercises and you’ll soon feel the benefit. Do them a couple of times a day (depending on how much you type, game, play guitar, etc) and avoid straining to the point of pain.
Combined with the exercises above, you have a routine which takes little to no time to perform, can be done anywhere at almost any time, and prevents a large span of injuries directly related to heavy office work.
Other office exercises to beat the strain
Most other injuries and health problems related to office work don’t need specific exercises to manage them.
In fact, the following precautions eliminate the need for typical “office exercises” (aside from hand and arm ones) entirely:
- Sit up straight
- Have your computer monitor at eye level
- Adjust your desk to have your arms parallel to the floor
- Take a break every hour
- Walk around during your break
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle outside of work (eat well, walk/run/do yoga, etc)
Having said that, there are a few recommendations I have for anyone who wants to go a step further and perform more traditional exercises while at work.
Sitting and desk exercises
The most important thing to do before using these exercises is to pinpoint where you feel the most tension. This will let you perform the exercises which will give the biggest benefit.
For example, office work (or any sedentary work) often leaves you with a lot of tension in your neck and shoulders due to being at a desk all day. Alternatively, if your chair isn’t too good or you lean over your desk a lot, your back will probably need to get some attention to prevent any lasting damage.
All of these exercises (courtesy of the NHS) are one you can do while sitting down or at your desk. Unless stated otherwise, do them while sitting up straight with your feet flat on the floor.
Don’t be afraid to feel around for what gives you the deepest stretch, but never push it to the point of pain.
- Neck stretch – hold your left shoulder with your right hand and slowly tilt your head to the right (away from the shoulder you’re holding). Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 3 times on each side.
- Neck rotation – from looking straight ahead, slowly turn your head towards your right shoulder as far as is possible (as if you’re trying to look over your shoulder). Hold for 5 seconds, and do a total of 3 sets on each side.
- Chest stretch – pull your shoulders back and down, then extend your arms down by your sides and push your chest up and forward until you feel a stretch. Hold for 5-10 seconds and repeat 5 times.
- Arm raises – starting with your arms by your sides, turn your palms forward then stretch your arms out to the sides and then up as far as they will go. Keep your arms straight and shoulders down during this and repeat 5 times.
- Upper body (back) twist – cross your arms and put your hands on your shoulders, then turn your upper body (not your hips) to one side as far as you can. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat a total of 5 times on each side.
- Hip (and thigh) marches – hold the sides of your chair (by your legs) and raise one leg with your knee bent as high as it will go. Lower your leg steadily, then repeat for a total of 5 lifts with each leg.
- Ankle stretches – still holding the side of your chair, straighten one leg in front of you with your foot pointing up. Flatten the foot to make your toes point forward as much as possible, then raise it once more. Do 2 sets of 5 stretches with each foot.
Simple actions such as shrugging, making circles with your shoulders and gently rolling your head are also great and easy exercises that can be used at any time.
Remember – you don’t need to be sweating or doing fancy stretches to get the important benefits.
Standing and non-desk exercises
If you want to take your office exercise one step further, these exercises are a great way to get out from behind your desk and really stretch out to your fullest.
Having said that, these are far more obvious to do at work. While being healthy is vital, consider moving somewhere you won’t be interrupted or walked in on to avoid any embarrassment.
- Walk, jog, or run in place – it’s simple, but it works. Try to maintain 30-second bursts of action 5 times over to loosen up your whole body and get your heart rate up.
- Push-ups – proper form is crucial here, but Nerd Fitness gives an excellent push-up guide to help you out. Since this is more of a stretch than a workout, aim for 1-3 sets of 10 push-ups.
- Squats – again, your form is far more important than any amount of weight if you just want to stay healthy. Check out this guide for full instructions, then aim for 1-3 sets of 10.
- Lunges – another staple for exercising without equipment, getting your form right is vital to perform lunges correctly. Check out this guide, then do 1-3 sets of 10.
You don’t need to do fancy or complex exercises in order to combat the strain that office work provides. You don’t even have to do much of any given exercise at one time – the primary goal here is to avoid injury, not lose weight or get ripped.
Do as much as you’re comfortable with as often as you feel the need to.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to stay healthy rather than deal with tension and pain as it comes, try to do the sitting exercises twice per day and the standing exercises once or twice per day. Try doing them at lunchtime and (if you feel like it) after work to shake off the day.
The full office workout
To round things off, I thought I’d provide an office workout along the same lines as the exercises already covered. That is, one that can be performed with very little space and equipment, but serves as a great quick workout to help you lose weight and tone up.
Don’t worry – it’s nothing complicated. It only takes around a half hour, and only needs to be done 3 times per week to give results.
As a little proof, here’s a “before and after” comparison of me. In the 6 months between these photos, the only changes I made were eating healthily and doing this routine 3 times per week.
Inspired by Bodyweight365, the routine is as follows:
- Jump rope (or pretend to jump rope or run in place) for 10 minutes to get your heartbeat going
- 15 star jumps (keep a steady, quick pace)
- 30-second break
- 10 squats (focus on form, keeping steady and with no breaks)
- 30-second break
- 10 push-ups (again, form, steady pace, no breaks)
- 60-second break
- 10 lying hip raises (keep your shoulders on the floor, pushing up to have straight back)
- 30-second break
- 10 lunges on each leg
- 30-second break
- 15-second plank (form is vital here – hold for up to 30 seconds depending on how you feel)
- 90-second break
- Repeat the entire cycle (minus the warm-up) 4 times.
Using this routine along with the office exercises above has changed my life, and I hope that you see a similar level of improvement with them.
If you need some more help managing the strain office work puts on you, check out our complete guide to dictation software.
Here’s to staying healthy without needing to become an exercise nut to do it!
Do you have any set office exercises you perform? Let me know in the comments below!