20 Ways to Reduce Stress and Get Fit as You Work…in Three Minutes a Day

by Diane Berenbaum

Are your pants a bit tighter than they used to be? Ever notice a twinge in your back? Research shows that people who sit at least six hours a day are likely to lose muscle tone, experience back pain, gain weight and suffer from increased stress. 

Everyone seems to be working longer hours these days, making the “no-time-to-exercise” excuse easier to use than ever. So we go about our day, working at our desks for long periods of time, rarely exercising much of anything other than our minds and fingers at the keyboard.

Exercise will help you keep your body and mind "in shape". Besides giving you more energy and helping you feel better about yourself, it will also help you reduce stress.

How can you exercise while sitting in an office or cubicle and staring at a computer screen for most of the day? Impossible, you say. Not convinced that you can actually get fit while you sit? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Stretch Yourself

Take time to stretch, all different parts of your body.  This will help relax you so that you can handle whatever comes your way. 

  1. Stretch your neck.  Gently turn your head all the way to the left so that you are looking over your left shoulder.  Hold for 10 seconds.  Face forward, then turn your head all the way to the right and hold for 10 seconds.
  2. Stretch your calves—even while you're seated. Straighten one leg and place it out in front of you, with only your heel touching the floor. Press back on your foot until you feel a gentle nudge on your calf.  Hold for 10 seconds and then repeat with the other leg.  You can do this standing up as well, to get an even bigger stretch.
  3. Stretch your arms—take your right arm and hold it across your body.  Use your left arm to gently pull at the elbow until you feel a nice stretch. Put pressure on the top of the arm, not the elbow, and be sure to keep your shoulders down, so that you stretch the right muscle. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
  4. Shrug your shoulders, hold the shrug high for about 5 seconds and then quickly let your shoulders drop. Do this several times a day to release pressure. You can also roll your shoulders to relax and ease tension—five times forward and then five times backward.
  5. Do the “twist”:  While facing forward twist your entire body to the left. Hold on to the arms of your chair to be sure you get a good stretch.  Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side, and repeat as needed throughout the day to release tension in your back.

Sixty-second Exercise Bursts

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week—a monumental task for most of us, given demands from work and home. The good news is that doctors say that any amount of exercise helps—even short bursts. Kelli Calabrese, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, says that even 60 second aerobic bursts will help keep you fit and focused. Here are a few aerobic activities to consider:

  1. While seated, pump both arms over your head for 30 seconds. Then, rapidly tap your feet on the floor, football drill style, for 30 seconds. Repeat three to five times.
  2. Power walk to your next meeting, the water cooler or even the restroom. To make it more impactful, hold small hand weights (or to be less conspicuous, carry heavy notebooks/folders) to get your heart pumping even more.
  3. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Go up and down the stairs for a minute. Keep up a brisk pace or take the steps two at a time to increase the level of difficulty.
  4. After parking your car, make a run for your office door. Be sure to park far enough away to give yourself a workout. Forgo that space right near the entrance. Make it a habit to and park in the last lane or across the street to be sure you get a daily workout.
  5. If you have the space and the inclination, do jumping jacks for one minute. If you haven't done jumping jacks in a while and you don't want your associates to hear you panting, then do the low impact version—raise your right arm and tap your left foot to the side while keeping your right foot on the floor; then switch sides.

Watch your Posture

Do you slouch or slump? Chances are you are doing one or the other—despite being told to “sit up straight” by parents and teachers. When you hunch at your desk, you can create misalignment and strain in the lower back and pelvis. While you may be concentrating at the task at hand, you may be sabotaging your health. 

  1. If you train your body to keep your posture vertical, you'll engage your abdomen and help ensure alignment of your spine. While sitting or standing, pull your shoulders up and back, as if you were at attention. You'll find your posture will improve and you'll exude an air of confidence too.
  2. Adjust your seat so that, while sitting, you can rest your feet flat on the floor or on a step stool.  The top of the monitor should be level with your eyes. Keep your legs bent so that they are only slightly higher than your hips.
  3. To counteract hunching, do this posture stretch:  clasp your hands behind your lower back and gently pull them down and out, while sitting up straight and sticking out your chest. Then, clasp them in front, let your body form a “C” shape and gently pull your arms until you feel a nice stretch in your back.
  4. Contract your abdominal and gluteal muscles while seated—hold then release. Repeat this a few minutes throughout the day (No one will know that you are doing this!). This exercise will get you sitting up straight and help you tone these particularly challenging zones.

Be Proactive

  1. Get out of your chair at least once an hour. Stretch, walk around or go talk to someone instead of emailing or calling. Sitting in a chair for hours a day can cause muscle strain and certain body parts to sag, or worse, spread!
  2. While talking on the phone move your arms and walk around, as long as you don't disturb others around you.
  3. Keep a pair of sneakers in your office so you can take a walk during lunch or a break. 
  4. Keep leg weights (the ones that wrap around your ankles) nearby.  You can put the weights on your legs, and one at a time, bend your knee and do knee lifts under your desk. This will do wonders for your quadriceps.
  5. Take deep cleansing breaths when you start to feel stressed. Hold the breath for five seconds, then slowly exhale until you've squeezed it all out.  Repeat…and feel better.
  6. Do lunges as you walk around the office. Take a big step forward and gently lower yourself, making sure your knee does not go over your toes. Keep your torso upright and your back leg straight. Then, take the other leg and step forward in the same fashion. Repeat—you'll give your legs and glutes a great workout, though you might get a few stares or laughs from your associates.

Make a Plan and See the Difference in You….and Your Office

Find something that works for you so that you'll be more likely to keep doing it. Ask your associates to support your efforts. Or, better yet, ask them to join you in your plan to reduce stress and get fit at work. Who knows...perhaps your associates will start feeling better too, making your entire office a more relaxed and enjoyable place to work.

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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